Today, most big apparel suppliers rely on independent manufacturers outside the U.S. to make and ship their goods to stores, a strategy that allows branded suppliers to focus on design, marketing, inventory management and careful monitoring of sales trends,” stated an article last year inThe Wall Street Journal.

For EHS professionals working in the new global supply chain, this means more responsibility with less direct control. The job of managing operations in other countries has become less difficult during the past ten years, due mostly to advances in technology. Still, it’s a tricky task. Specific regulations differ from country to country, as do customs, languages, and laws. Further complicating matters are treaties of global governance like the Kyoto Protocol. EHS management is now expected to understand the nexus of local and international compliance. And deal with emergencies:

What do we do if one of our people in Asia calls with a spill or a serious injury to report?

What safeguards have we put in place in Europe to protect an environment so far and different from what we know here in the U.S.?

How fast can we get someone on the ground in the Middle East to perform a vendor EHS audit?

Who can we rely on in South America to manage the day-to-day operations to ensure compliance with both governmental and company protocols?

Three options

These are questions companies are asking themselves as they organize for the future. There are three options to manage this global challenge: 1) Do the work yourself; 2) Contract the work out; or 3) Outsource the contracting.

If the work is performed in-house, you retain complete control of the process and can vouch for all end results. Control comes with a higher price tag, though. It drains internal resources, and is often impractical. Many core EHS staff have been reduced in the U.S. as it is. Plus, firms are not typically equipped in disparate locations. Bringing testing equipment overseas is burdensome and expensive.

Contracting out EHS work to professionals in all of a firm’s geographical areas may be less expensive than sending resources from the U.S. abroad. It will also guarantee a certain familiarity with the local culture and regulations. But you can’t be certain about the competency of the contractors. You can’t truly even be sure that the scope of the work is understood because there may be language barriers between you and the contractor. Not to mention the trouble dealing with a myriad of time zones. Trying to communicate with a contractor whose primary language isn’t English can be challenging — especially in the middle of the night or in the early morning hours before the coffee has brewed.

Maintaining quality control

Outsourcing the contracting function may be the only manageable way to skin this cat, although for those seeking complete control it will always be frustrating to let someone else qualify vendors and manage initiatives on their behalf. Competent EHS outsourcing managers have systems, procedures and networks in place to vet each provider based on technical competence, familiarity with local regulations and culture, and business practices.

Independent EHS project management companies are few and far between at this point. Most consultants specialize in one general area both technically and geographically — unless they are part of a multi-national consultancy that supports hired resources around the world.

In the future, companies will turn to EHS project management firms (or consultants) to act as a bridge to different cultures and regulatory nuances. They will increasingly rely on U.S. firms with qualified resources in Asia, Europe, South America, Africa, and the Middle East to provide the educated and trained manpower to accomplish EHS objectives.

For example, our firm was asked to perform a set of EHS audits for electronic parts recyclers in Brazil and Singapore. Through our contacts, we identified candidate firms in both countries. We reviewed the technical and regulatory capabilities with each firm and obtained referrals. We also reviewed the prospective affiliate’s fiscal stability and business practices. Once we were comfortable, we signed master consulting agreements with each firm. They need a second set of ears, eyes, legs, and arms to embrace the evolution of their companies — and they need it yesterday.