International Human Rights Day: How Companies Are Fighting To Get Human Rights Right

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By : Devika Narayan, Account Supervisor

Although it emerged as a top corporate sustainability priority for 2017, respecting and promoting human rights is no easy feat. It involves actively working across supply chains, from owned operations to first-tier suppliers and all the way down into the extended supply chain where raw materials are produced. Given the complexities around the supplier ecosystem, it is not surprising that many businesses struggle to effectively address, tackle and communicate around the issue.

Thankfully, an increasing number of companies are beginning to shape policies, approaches and business practices to address the most pervasive human rights risks. To celebrate International Human Rights Day, we are taking a look at the best practices leading companies that champion equality, justice and human dignity are focusing on to make the most impact:

Focus on Issues That Matter the Most: There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to advocating for human rights. A multinational public company is going to face different risks and opportunities than a smaller, private business will. Today, companies like Coca-Cola and Unilever are investing time and resources into engaging internal and external stakeholders to identify their most salient human rights issues – using a lens of risk to people in the supply chain in addition to risk to the business. They are also committing to regularly reporting progress against these issues, with both Coca-Cola and Unilever recently launching their first standalone human rights reports. By focusing on the human rights that stand to bear the most severe negative impacts, companies can turn abstract ideals into direct action.

Be Transparent About Your Journey: Companies are beginning to move beyond burying strategies on human rights within sustainability and procurement policies. Now, businesses are engaging in transparent, honest dialogue that takes stakeholders along the journey — no matter where the company might be on its path to protecting human rights. For example, Paul Lister, head of Primark’s ethical trading team, recently spoke about the company’s approach to combatting modern slavery in its supply chain at the 2016 Trust Women conference. By openly discussing areas of strength as well as highlighting room for improvement with Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers, Primark lent credibility to its CSR and ethical trade strategies while building trust with critics, activists and industry stakeholders.

Collaborate to Extend Impact: The challenge of respecting human rights is too big for any one organization to solve alone. It needs all players — businesses, NGOs and governments — to convene and collaborate, each playing a unique role. For example, Mars* recently joined forces with Oxfam to create the Farmer Income Lab, a new collaborative research platform to tackle endemic poverty among the world’s 500 million smallholder farmers, who live on less than $2 per day. Smallholder farmers make up a large component of Mars’ own extended supply chain, producing ingredients including cocoa, rice and mint. The Lab will serve as an incubator for insights that can be put into action through sustainable sourcing strategies that may start with Mars but could extend much further.

The bar for companies addressing human rights is higher than ever before. By identifying the issues that are most salient and developing protocols and action plans needed to address them, companies can tackle issues they can have the greatest impact on. Additionally, business should embark on a journey of continuous improvement by being transparent about progress while acknowledging shortcomings and engaging stakeholders along the way. Keeping these best practices in mind, more companies will be able to move beyond generic human rights statements to creating real, meaningful change across their supply chains.

*Cone client