BSR Conference 2013: Viewing Sustainability Challenges through a Human Lens

November 12, 2013

Lauren Behr, Intern, BSR

Lauren Behr, Intern, BSR

At the BSR Conference 2013, a core theme that emerged conversation after conversation was how an innovative idea or collective action could be transformative for billions of the world’s most vulnerable people. Given the challenges over the past year regarding worker safety in global supply chains, such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse, the need to address sustainability issues through a human lens has taken on a greater sense of urgency. Industry collaborations and multistakeholder initiatives have been instrumental in improving conditions for workers at the factory and farm level, but we have a long way to go in making these initiatives relevant and impactful beyond the initial crises that often spur their formation.

The session “Collaborative Initiatives: Accelerators or Diversions?” explored the factors that make multistakeholder initiatives like the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights successful. BSR Human Rights Advisor Christine Bader and Human Rights Watch Director of Business and Human Rights Arvind Ganesan agreed that collaborations are credible and effective when expectations for participation are set high, and when brands commit to integrating agreed-upon best practices into strategy. However, while collaborations are valuable in bringing parties to the table, they tend to fall short on creating accountability mechanisms that compel industry-wide compliance. The challenge, therefore, is whether to design multistakeholder initiatives to encourage greater compliance or to push governments to institutionalize these standards, making them compulsory for doing business.

This raises the question of whether it is the responsibility of business to help close the governance gap in countries where local governments are not doing enough to protect workers’ rights. The session “Can We Create Sustainable, Equitable Supply Chains?” brought this debate to life, with representatives from Better Work, Sedex, and Unilever sharing their perspectives on why only limited progress has been made in improving working conditions in the past few decades. Two key themes came out of the discussion. First, the value of sustainability is not yet connected to the core business functions that drive economic value for brands. Second, the issue is not non-compliant suppliers, but rather non-compliant value chains. Inefficient value chains lock suppliers out of the decision-making process at the top, which puts pressure on them to deliver products quickly and cheaply. The burden ultimately falls on workers in the form of long hours, low wages, and poor conditions. The panel concluded with a call to action for the industry to demand a more efficient system and for businesses to be more assertive in communicating their expectations of governments in the countries in which they operate.

Companies can also benefit from more advanced and tailored tools that assess suppliers by viewing compliance issues and product lines through a human lens. This allows brands to better select suppliers and to target competency gaps more easily. For example, companies are changing the way we think about human rights impact assessments (HRIA) by identifying human rights issues that are unique to each of their products. In the session “Innovative Human Rights Impact Assessments,” Dan Bross shared that Microsoft uses HRIA to apply a material risk lens to its products and services, which identifies and addresses risks to stakeholder rights, like consumer privacy. In the same session, Chris Anderson of Rio Tinto shared that by moving from operations-focused assessments to ones that are specific to individual suppliers, the company is better positioned to anticipate and mitigate human rights abuses. These types of innovations move human rights protections past “do no harm” and allow for more sophisticated applications of HRIA products.

Given our increasing interconnectivity and the rapid pace of innovation today, the business community has the opportunity to make incredible strides in advancing workers’ rights. As we better understand how sustainability challenges directly impact individual workers and communities, we can design solutions that unlock social and economic value and provide greater efficiency in global supply chains. In her plenary speech, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson framed the challenge perfectly by invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase, “the fierce urgency of now.” We must be bold in our methods for addressing human rights issues that cannot wait another decade to be resolved.


To see more highlights from the BSR Conference 2013, read "Sustainability Storytelling: Creating a Narrative that Matters" and "The Future of Sustainable Business: Finding Your Power in Networks."

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