By Laura Quinn for Tea & Water
Tackling human rights in business is no longer just an internal process of supply chain compliance. With transparency reaching an all-time premium, it has become a major market and industry priority. Consumers are bearing their teeth around the globe, taking action online and offline against companies with poor human rights records and questionable sourcing ethics, spurred on by media-savvy activist groups fulfilling their own brand of jihad against unscrupulous companies.
The struggle for business is that getting human rights right, throughout the value chain, is vastly complex and requires the supplier ecosystem and wider industry to come together over many years. Even companies with strong, long-term strategies are open to the risk of exposure, prompting many corporate leadership teams to keep the issue out of public view and bury it within the policies of sustainability and procurement teams. But the difficult reality is that the longer a company keeps its human rights skeletons in the closet, the greater the potential risk of exposure becomes.
It’s only by disrupting the narrative of public exposé and turning transparency into a tool for open engagement and dialogue that companies can begin to safeguard corporate reputations and take a leadership position in the battle for human rights, even if it’s a battle that’s not yet won. And companies that are able to take this lead will also become the strongest voice in the eyes of consumers, driving a conversation that matters not just for the business but on a societal, human and global level.
When Tesco took the bold decision to be the first retailer in the world to publish its food waste data in 2013, it disclosed a shameful level of wasteful practices and rightfully drew criticism from consumers, activists and the media alike. But in putting its head above the parapet it also distinguished its own voice in the issue. Consumers and special interest groups were, for the first time, seeing transparent and honest data instead of hearsay and alleged reports. And activists were no longer banging their head against a closed door; the door was open and they’d been invited in. In being the first to acknowledge its negative role, Tesco executed a well-orchestrated, thought-leadership campaign and went on to become a critical voice in the fight against food waste, driving the credibility of its public Community Food Connection initiative in the process.
Equally, when Paul Lister, from Primark’s ethical trading team, took to the stage for a Q&A at the Trust Women Conference in late 2016, the questions came thick and fast – and few were complimentary. Primark’s pricing strategy and involvement with suppliers inside the Rana Plaza complex that collapsed in Bangladesh had raised questions over its ethical commitments for many years. To face those questions head-on in front of a heavyweight audience of women’s rights and modern slavery experts was brave and, at times, uncomfortable. But by simply standing up and sharing its experience honestly, Primark is already changing the opinion of critics, activists and industry stakeholders and lending credence to its CSR and ethical trade strategy in the eyes of those who would have normally been most critical.
As companies’ sustainable strategies become more sophisticated so must the communication of those strategies to drive positive impact at every level. For human rights that means opening the debate transparently and building a strong voice instead of a closed door. It means educating consumers on the complexities of the problem and being honest about progress, ambitions and targets. And it means inviting the activists into an open dialogue that demonstrates a clear position; making companies the target of collaboration and action instead of protest and exposure.
The battle for better human rights is far from won but those who are able to leverage transparency and open dialogue as tools for positive action will find themselves leading the charge across industry and society, and ensuring their voice is heard positively from the factory floor to the shop floor.
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.