Chloё Poynton, Manager, Advisory Services, BSR

At the third annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights last week, it was clear that some companies have made impressive gains implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In spite of this, much work remains to be done when it comes to “knowing and showing” respect for human rights.

The recognition that many companies have yet to take basic steps—such as developing a human rights policy—have left some wondering whether voluntary principles are enough to ensure corporate respect for human rights. The government of Ecuador, for example, recently proposed that the UN Human Rights Council establish an intergovernmental working group to negotiate an international, binding treaty on business and human rights.

Others, however, worry that focusing on the development of binding treaties, which have been proposed and discarded in the past, is a diversion from the real work. Instead, they argue, we need to use the Guiding Principles as a tool to raise the bar on human rights for all companies.

This week, a new tool emerged that might solve for this: the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB).

The benchmark—to be led by Aviva Investors, Business and Human Rights Resource Center, Calvert Investments, EIRIS, Institute for Human Rights and Business, and VBDO—will rank 500 of the world’s largest companies in agriculture, apparel, extractives, and information and communications technology on their human rights performance. The CHRB Steering Group members will spend the next three years conducting a worldwide consultation on the benchmark’s methodology.

As with all benchmarks and ratings, ensuring an appropriate methodology will be key to the initiative’s success. Of particular importance will be the difficulty in measuring respect for human rights where respect may not always be obvious. For example, Company A may receive and respond to more grievances than Company B. Does this mean Company A is trailing Company B in respecting human rights because it has received more grievances? Or does it mean that Company A is outperforming Company B because it has developed an effective grievance mechanism while Company B has not—thereby explaining the discrepancy in grievances filed? How the CHRB deals with these challenges has yet to be determined, but if it succeeds in crafting a meaningful methodology, the CHRB has the ability to be a powerful tool in the movement to ensure corporate respect for human rights.

Public rankings of company performance on corporate responsibility can be an effective tool in driving a race to the top. The Access to Medicines Index, for example, which ranks global pharmaceutical companies on their contributions to increasing access to medicines, has helped increase investments in access throughout industry. (The ATMI led to the development of the Guiding Principles on Access to Healthcare, a project I helped develop with BSR’s pharmaceutical members, which frames the industry’s approach to expanding access to quality healthcare globally. Its 2014 status report can be found here). In addition, Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign, which ranks 10 food and beverage companies on responsible supply chain management, has led to meaningful action from companies to address issues ranging from climate change to land grabs. General Mills, for example, made a public commitment to “implement long-term science-based targets to cut emissions from across all of its operations and supply chains” in response to the campaign.

The developers of the human rights benchmark hope to “harness the competitive nature of the markets to drive better human rights performance.” If it succeeds, it may drown out the debate between binding and voluntary standards by highlighting the power of transparency.