Business and Human Rights Resource Center, a United Kingdom-based independent NGO, today released a new interactive platform that sheds more light on the effects multinationals and governments have on human rights. The organization’s data, the result of surveying 50 national governments and 72 companies, shows that while progress has been made, more work needs to be done.
The results are hardly surprising: Many respondents repeated the oft-heard notion that a complex supply chain and weak government enforcement pose challenges to businesses that say they are committed to human rights. But considering how some business sectors have a struggle with both their track records and perception that they are making progress on human rights, the nature of the organizations that did and did not participate are surprising.
Companies across the world responded, including Coca-Cola, China’s national oil company CNOOC and the Spanish telecommunications giant Telefónica. Of the 50 companies that participated in the survey, 34 already have a publicly-available human rights statement. Among the corporations that returned the survey, the food and beverage sector had the highest response rate at over 70 percent — which is encouraging, considering the impacts this sector has on social issues like land rights, water scarcity, and even public health and obesity.
Meanwhile, the retail and garment sectors were relatively quiet, with only 1 in 4 apparel companies participating in the survey. With the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh approaching, and the human rights violations that have damaged the reputation of many companies within this industry, the lack of responses will raise a few eyebrows.
“While the major apparel companies like adidas, Nike and Gap have human rights policies and systems in place and engaged with this survey, it is disappointing that many others in the wider retail sector were silent,” said Annabel Short, program director of Business and Human Rights Resource Center. “Major online retailers like Alibaba, Amazon.com and e-Bay as well as retail outlets such as Costco, Fast Retailing (owner of Uniqlo) and Walmart have not yet responded to this survey. These companies have huge impacts through their supply chains, and also in their treatment of employees. We hope to see greater action and transparency by these firms on human rights, sooner rather than later.”
In fairness, the amount of surveys that arrive by post and email often overwhelm those tasked by companies to handle their sustainability and corporate responsibility work — a fact I personally have heard from many professionals who usually head these efforts alone or with a skeleton staff. Some companies such as Costco, which have a stellar reputation with how they treat their employees and suppliers, may have just buried the survey deep in their inbox. Survey fatigue, not the assumption a company is trying to hide something (today’s technology takes care of that, thank you), often gets in the way of completing these surveys.
Meanwhile the response of those from governments was all over the map. Most European Union nations responded, as did those considered active on business and human rights issues — those countries included the United States and Brazil. In addition, Angloa, Bahrain, Israel, Japan and Burma — countries still in the early stages of policy development — also completed the survey. Meanwhile, some of the world’s largest economies, including Canada, China, India and Russia, were silent.
So, what will this survey mean in the long run? For now it is literally business as usual: Business and government continue to point fingers at each other, saying the other side is getting in the way of progress on human rights. But Business and Human Rights Resource Center claims that the data it has culled can give companies and government agencies an idea of how to strengthen human rights policies that can boost transparency and improve a company’s reputation in the long run.
Image credit: Leon Kaye
Based in California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.