By Laura Quinn for Tea & Water
Although human rights topped the rankings of corporate sustainability priorities in the BSR/Globescan State of Sustainable Business 2017, in reality it’s been difficult to see how businesses are making genuine progress. The positive impacts of improved human rights stretch from reduced risks in the value chain, to securing and retaining talent, to building consumer trust, and yet the way businesses tackle and communicate the issue hasn’t moved with nearly the innovation or urgency it needs to.
Even where policies are in place, they are often hard to understand and even harder to implement across complex value chains, while internal communications teams struggle to create genuine engagement or action across vast company cultures. Essentially, the journey from defining priorities and creating policies to actually affecting behaviour change is a challenge that, for the most part, businesses are still struggling to crack.
But the opportunity to engage stakeholders in human rights across the value chain is great, in every sense of the word. A huge potential audience exists, whose passion and energy could reinvigorate everything we think about rights within business, and transform it from a niche responsibility into a platform for change across companies, industry and society alike. This audience stretches from senior leadership to employees and from local management to suppliers, partners, factory floor workers and even consumers.
But to leverage this potential and create the engagement needed to tackle one of the biggest sustainability issues of our time, we need to radically disrupt how we think about what human rights means, and how we talk about it across audiences. From our experience working across global cultures and value chains, here are our five top tips to inject fresh innovation into your company’s human rights approach and move from creating policy to driving behavior change.
1. Use everyday language for everyday stuff
For most people, the phrase ‘human rights’ means modern slavery, abused prisoners, and neglected pensioners. It’s the language of the UN, Amnesty International and the Daily Mail – it doesn’t feel like the stuff of everyday office workers. But in business, human right in its simplest form means the happiness, comfort, safety and protection of people – all people, regular people. It’s everyday stuff, so it’s time we used everyday language to describe it.
From “operational and foundational principles” to simple dos and don’ts. From “avoiding infringement of the rights of others” to treating everyone with kindness and respect. From “corporate and collective responsibility” to everyone doing their bit. It’s much easier to get the basics right when everyone, at every level, understands what those basics are and why they matter.
2. Make it real - and actionable
Human rights as a ‘universal declaration’ is huge and broad-ranging concept that sounds simpler in theory than it often is in reality. However, at least for companies it’s often possible to anticipate where rights are likely to become on-ground issues and find smart ways to bring those to life for different groups. It could mean engaging women on their right to equal treatment, supporting suppliers to come up with home-grown ideas to ensure fair wages for all, or sensitizing team leaders on minority and LGBT issues. With smart planning and engaging communications, we can handpick the groups and areas most critical to the business and turn abstract ideals into direct action for those involved most closely.
3. Get the entire business involved
Ensuring people’s rights within a company usually falls to a small number of people in one or two departments. That makes it a problem of the few instead of the responsibility of all. To inspire action across the business we need to make human rights easy to understand, and even easier to act on. Ensuring that every employee and partner has a set of simple actions they can take every day will keep it simple for them, but add up to a huge collective impact across the business.
4. Reward pockets of greatness
Great progress often happens in small pockets and it’s usually possible to find individuals who are going beyond what’s required to promote rights in their own area of work. By sharing those stories widely within the business – and integrating critical issues into performance reviews - we can not only recognise and reward those who are getting it right, but motivate others to build a culture where supporting human rights becomes the collective aspiration.
5. Use the power of consumers
Consumers care about human rights, even if they don’t say it in focus groups. For consumers, human rights simply means going to the store and knowing that the products on the shelves were made with fairness and respect. And who doesn’t care about that? It’s time to get the conversation moving with consumers and activate their power as agents of change. Those businesses that can lift themselves above the parapet and drive public dialogue will find themselves leaps ahead in the race for transparency and consumer confidence.
Laura Quinn consults on behalf of Tea & Water, a multi-local agency that combines insight, strategy and communications to help companies motivate real behavior change around their sustainability agendas, throughout the supply chain.
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