This Holiday Season, Find Out What Your Favorite Brands are Doing on Human Rights

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Last week, the Business & Human Rights Resource Center (BHRRC) shared a helpful instructional video on how to use its new Company Action Platform (the Platform), which measures company action on human rights. Coming shortly before Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the video serves as a useful reminder of how consumers can take a hard look at what — if any — progress their favorite brands have made toward ensuring respect for human rights.

How the Platform was born

In December 2014, BHRRC invited 180 companies to provide information regarding their policies and practices on human rights. In determining which companies to approach, BHRRC identified: the top 30 companies (internationally) by market capitalization in four sectors — Extractives; Food, beverage & agriculture; Information and communications technology; and Retail & apparel; the largest 50 companies by market cap overall (which captures companies in some other sectors, such as Finance & banking and Pharmaceutical); and additional large companies headquartered Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

BHRRC then issued a five-page questionnaire to those companies covering topics ranging from policy commitments, governance and management, to stakeholder engagement, reporting and challenges. Responses were loaded into and organized in the Company Platform, which debuted in February and is continuously updated with feedback from companies and current news about corporate human rights impacts.

How to use the Platform

Finding out whether and to what extent a company responded to BHRRC’s survey is easy, and consumers should leverage this information when making purchasing decisions.

For example, imagine one is in the market for a new mobile phone and is considering a replacement. If she clicks on the drop-down under “Companies,” selects “Apple,” and then clicks “View Response,” she will find that “Apple has not yet responded to the survey” and that there is “[n]o publicly-available human rights policy found for Apple.” Perhaps no surprise there, but she will also find the same results for the two other major smartphone manufacturers — Google and Samsung.

Who else makes mobile phones? No idea. Luckily, the Platform allows the consumer to search by “sector” as well (see “Advanced search options”). By viewing the responses of all companies in the “Information and communications technology” (ICT) sector, she can see that a number of other technology companies failed to respond to the BHRRC survey as well — eBay, Facebook, and IBM, to name a few.  Shame.

Of course, she can also see which companies did respond, and then delve into the details of those responses. Luckily for the prospective mobile phone purchaser, Microsoft took the time to complete the BHRRC survey, so the consumer can drill down a bit into its human rights initiatives. For example, one will discover that Microsoft has a human rights policy; it has a dedicated “Technology and Human Rights Center,” which works to foster dialogue to advance the understanding of the ICT sector’s impacts on human rights; and one of its primary human rights challenges is how to engage with its manifold stakeholders.

In short, after a few minutes of research the consumer has learned that the world’s leading smartphone manufacturers ignored the BHRRC survey and that Microsoft at least appears to take the issue of human rights seriously. Armed with this information, one can decide whether to finally cut the cord and jettison Apple (or Google, or Samsung) once and for all, or to continue to ignore their apparent lack of concern for the rest of the planet because they make a better product. In either case, at least the decision will be an informed one.

Key insights from the data

Having explored how the tool can be useful from the perspective of a consumer, let’s turn to some of the broader and more significant insights revealed by the data available in the Platform:

  • Of 184 companies polled, a little more than half (52 percent) responded to the survey.
  • The most responsive sector was “Food, beverage & agriculture” (73 percent participation), which, as we have seen, has also done well working with socially responsible investors toward more sustainable practices. Bravo.
  • The least responsive sectors were some of the most traditionally problematic, including retail/apparel (27 percent participation) and state-owned extractives (36 percent); a correspondingly small proportion of companies in these sectors have human rights policies.
  • Few companies have addressed the so-called “third pillar” of the Guiding Principles: access to remedy.
  • While many companies cited weak government frameworks and enforcement as challenges, a number of governments cited opposition by economic groups as a barrier to more significant progress on corporate accountability for human rights abuses. As BHRRC put it, “Too often, interactions between companies and governments work against, rather than in support of, human rights.”
  • Other challenges frequently identified by companies were the complexities of their global supply chains and a lack of understanding about the “language” of human rights.

A reminder of the work left to do

The company responses (and lack thereof) in the BHRRC platform provide a good reminder of the work left to do in the field of corporate human rights compliance and accountability.  Below are a few immediate steps businesses could take to strengthen their commitment to human rights.

Tone at the top.  Successful compliance starts with a strong leader willing to communicate a coherent vision and uncompromising opposition to corporate human rights violations. Where that tone has not been set, however, it is very easy — particularly for larger, tentacular organizations with extensive international supply chains — to shirk responsibility. One might look to Unilever and its CEO, Paul Polman, as an example of how strong leadership on human rights can translate into action (and even he has struggled some). Here’s what Polman had to say in the press release announcing the publication in June of Unilever’s first-ever human rights report: “Business can only flourish in societies in which human rights are respected, upheld and advanced. People are our greatest asset, and empowering them across our supply chain is not only the right thing to do, but also ensures a sustainable future for the business.” Hear, hear.

Larger corporate social responsibility (CSR) teams.  More and more companies are creating dedicated human rights teams within broader “social responsibility” functions, and still more businesses are formalizing their CSR practices. This is a positive development; however, as BSR discovered earlier this year, most CSR/sustainability teams are small, and a one-person human rights department cannot make a significant impact at a big company. A company that cares about human rights and social responsibility is one that invests in the personnel to manage those issues, rather than dumping them on the already crowded plate of a middle-manager.

Engage the community. While many companies have mechanisms that allow employees to complain about alleged human rights violations, very few have procedures that permit third parties (i.e. community members) to raise such concerns. The Guiding Principles require businesses to “establish or participate in effective operational-level grievance mechanisms for individuals and communities who may be adversely impacted” by company activities. This is particularly important to multinational corporations operating or utilizing suppliers in countries with poor human rights and access to justice records. I wrote about Adidas’ “updated” grievance mechanism last year, which, at least on the face of it, remains a good example of an attempt to engage external stakeholders in the human rights remediation process. More companies should follow suit.

Human rights learning. Today, it is inexcusable for a company to plead ignorance of the “language” of human rights in an effort to justify inaction on human rights compliance. Businesses that truly care about their human rights impacts have no trouble communicating about the issue, and some have made great strides toward institutionalizing respect for human rights. Unilever’s inaugural human rights report, mentioned earlier, is an example of the sophisticated understanding of human rights challenges that can be achieved when a company truly commits. When a company believes it lacks the knowledge to engage on the issue of human rights, it’s time to do some homework and then train employees. Nonprofits and civil society do not have a monopoly on this work.

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It may seem like there is little consumers can do about what happens inside a company; however, thanks to tools like the BHRRC platform (and others, like Sustainable Brands or Oxfam’s “Behind the Brands” campaign), we can take the time to find out which companies have demonstrated a respect for human rights and then factor that information into our purchasing decisions.  The Holiday Season is a good time to start.

Image credit: Flickr/COD Newsroom

Michael Kourabas

Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

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