Last year, we discovered that human rights is still the most urgent sustainability priority for companies. While the obligations of human rights due diligence are relevant across all companies, the approach varies based on the industry, sizes and types of business, locations, and varieties of operations. These include such things as providing decent working conditions, consulting affected communities, and establishing grievance mechanisms. 

To help all companies assume their mantle as responsible human rights actors, BSR’s global human rights team is developing a series of primers describing the key human rights issues in various industries. The first, released this month, is on the financial sector. Later this year, we will release primers on power and utilities, transport and logistics, information and communications technology (ICT), and extractives. In 2018, we will release primers on healthcare, heavy manufacturing, food and agriculture, and fashion and beauty.     

For every company, carrying out the responsibility to respect human rights must begin with mapping the characteristics, activities, and geographies that will give rise to the greatest negative impacts.

The universal responsibilities of companies to address human rights cannot be implemented without a robust understanding of the contexts in which they take place. For a mining company operating in Africa, for example, providing decent working conditions will require particular attention to personal protective equipment, noise levels, and the stresses of working in remote areas. For a pharmaceutical company operating in northern Europe, the priority issues may be family leave, racial discrimination, and the use of temporary employees.

This approach also applies to identifying vulnerable groups. Watching and safeguarding the people who will suffer the harm from private-sector activities is one of the basic tenets of a human rights approach. For an internet company, the group at greatest risk may be bloggers who are seen as politically threatening by the host government. In contrast, the typical vulnerable population for a manufacturing company might be local women whose personal security is threatened by the male security forces guarding the factory premises.

Companies in different sectors also must be aware of how they may be connected to human rights abuses through their business relationships. For example, a typical apparel company will need to watch the supply chain for things like exploitative labor conditions for a workforce consisting largely of underprivileged young women. While a bank can be connected to human rights abuses by financing a large dam that forcibly relocates populations without compensation or provision for future livelihoods. In contrast, a technology company could be connected to violations through a government buyer, which uses its products to violate the privacy of political opposition leaders. 

BSR’s primers identify the 10 most urgent negative human rights impacts in each industry, considering all the dimensions described above, including impacts of core operations, business relationships, and products and services. We produced these primers based on lessons from BSR's 200-plus human rights projects with a variety of sectors and organizations around the world.

But we don't just want to identify risks. Each primer also includes three ideas for positive human rights impacts for each sector. These, like due diligence obligations, are dependent on the companies carrying them out. For example, extractive companies with 30-year project spans for mines in remote regions have unique opportunities to promote economic, social, and cultural rights. ICT companies have opportunities to support civil and political rights like freedom of expression.

While companies must first and foremost ensure that they take all reasonable measures to avoid human rights harms, we also hope to provide information that will help companies champion and defend human rights. Human rights, after all, are not just an obligation, but also an opportunity. 

Read BSR’s first business and human rights primer, on financial services.