On the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, I posted this short piece on LinkedIn:

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China may be trying to rewrite history by attempting to obliterate all traces of the Tiananmen Square event. 

But history itself teaches us that truth has an annoying habit of always eventually revealing itself — the truth can never be hidden forever.

As I send voodoo love to the people of China on this anniversary, I think about those of us in the procurement & supply chain management field, where ethics and other corporate social responsibility (CSR) issues continue to grow in importance. From a global/low-cost country sourcing perspective, how does China’s record on human rights sit against the cost-benefits in our business case?

Maybe we care strongly but we can’t convince or influence our boards.

Or perhaps when it really comes down to it, the ‘dollars’ is all that matters. 

After all, “Show me the money!” does have a nicer ring to it than “Show me the ethics!”

Call me an optimist, or maybe even an idealist, but I like to think that one day social considerations will outweigh the dollars in how we run our businesses, not just the supply chain elements.

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David Abbott’s comment on the post was a perceptive response highlighting the much broader considerations at play. He asks, “So do we consider the history of every country, and how far do we go back?”

It’s a brilliant question, David!

Indeed, if we took a ‘blanket’ perspective, then African companies wouldn’t do business with their erstwhile colonial masters in Europe; as would swathes of Asia and Latin America.

As you infer, David, the sins of the father should not be visited upon the sons — we can’t begrudge incumbent governments for atrocities of times gone by.

I think, though, that in China’s case many atrocities continue, especially severe human rights violations (the Uyghurs, Tibet, crackdown on political dissent, etc.)

Yet, the economic benefits that sourcing from or manufacturing in China has brought to the country are undeniable. In effect, global/low-cost country sourcing has improved the standard of living of the Chinese people.

So maybe we procurement and supply chain management folks should be proud.

Still, the social pundits will remind us that the ordinary Chinese citizens may have more yuan or renminbi in their pockets but they are still not truly free.

And there’s the rub, perhaps. The blossom of the human spirit exceeds what can be measured in dollars.

So I guess you’re right by posing the question, David; we should ask ourselves these sorts of intelligent questions in balancing the financial and non-financial considerations of our business case.

And we should be honest in our responses to ourselves.

If I applied the aforementioned blanket approach to my own purchasing decisions, then I would have refrained from buying the laptop I’m using to write this piece now; because I resent the repressive actions of the regime in China where it was assembled. Yet that assembly location in itself makes the product much more affordable to me.

And when I take my mistress shopping this weekend, I might refuse to buy her the pretty red dress that was manufactured in Bangladesh; because I detest the child labour exploitation that is endemic in apparel manufacture there. Even though I know she’ll look fabulous in the dress and that will make my heart smile.

This isn’t a criticism of Bangladesh or China. And it’s not about human rights per se. Rather, it’s emblematic of the socioeconomic and geopolitical landscape the modern world has given us.

Or, I should say ‘the landscape we have created’ — through our dollars and actions, as individuals and businesses.

Our purchasing and global sourcing actions put money in the pockets of the factory worker in Shenzhen or Dhaka. Yet we may also be condoning the social ills engendered by despotic regimes and unscrupulous parties in our supply chains, when our ethical standards are inadequate or our CSR mandates are just talk.

Whatever choices we make, in our talk or our actions, the eye of truth is always watching us.

Whether it’s China, Bangladesh or anywhere else, and whether it’s human rights, environmental pollution or gender equality, CSR issues are not always easy or straightforward. It’s a complex, multifaceted matter that can present a quagmire of ethical challenges, especially in a capitalist society where the Church of Money has the largest congregation.

Trying to achieve a “perfect” balance of the economic or financial forces at play and the non-financial considerations is like trying to do a headstand yoga pose in a bear pit.

But we often forget the inherent difficulties and complexity.

Too many of us can be guilty of spouting myriad CSR mantras indiscriminately. And sometimes those who’ve never had to balance these difficulties in their work are the ones who pontificate the loudest; they’re somewhat like people who needlessly leave bedroom lights on in their homes, or waste varying amounts of food and water weekly, yet rant about climate change.

It’s easy to ramble on about hunting when you’ve never actually faced a wild animal in the jungle. Just as it’s easy to preach about organic food when you’ve never really known the agony of hunger.

We’re all continually torn between our true or asserted values and how we actually act. It’s one of the verities of life, and it’s part of being human — our ‘walk’ doesn’t always match our ‘talk’ perfectly.

And since we bring that humanness to the workplace in how we run our businesses, it may be unrealistic to expect us to achieve the perfect balance of ethics and dollars. Maybe the perfect balance is a utopian ideal.

Still, I guess we should never cease our quest for the holy grail of ‘showing the money’ and ‘showing the ethics’, simultaneously and harmoniously. Because the more we try, the closer we get to the perfect balance, unattainable though it may be.

So, David, I share your alluded view that we shouldn’t “consider the history of every country” in a blinkered way, and we can’t go back in time to when the Devil was a baby. We can, however, be honest with ourselves; especially about our organisational values.

Thanks a lot for your discerning question — a simple-yet-insightful contribution, and from someone well qualified to comment. You’ve served as my remote muse today, and it’s another facet of the modern world we have created: that you can inspire me to sing my song from 5,761 miles away! Xiè xiè.