This year, for the eighth time, BSR and GlobeScan asked 300 business leaders from 152 companies to tell us about the corporate sustainability issues that were most important to them. And this year, like the last five running, they told us that human rights was their number-one priority.
This is not an isolated finding: Surveys conducted by many other organizations, such as the United Nations (in collaboration with the International Chamber of Commerce and International Organization of Employers), The Economist Intelligence Unit, and the UN Global Compact, have also found increasing attention on and interest in human rights by the business community.
So why are business leaders focusing on human rights?
I've spent the last six months on a human rights listening tour to find out. Earlier this year, I gathered BSR member companies in London, New York, Paris, San Francisco, and Tokyo to find out which issues were the most urgent to address and where companies needed the most help. Here's what they told me.
1. Human rights touches every aspect of a company’s operations
Human rights can't be cordoned off in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) department. All company functions, from human resources to procurement to legal compliance, interact with human rights every day, whether they realize it or not. Purchasing land? The resettlement of local populations has profound human rights implications. Hiring security guards? Their physical safety, as well as that of the populations they engage, are human rights issues. Collecting user data? Factor in consumers’ right to privacy. Opening a new factory? Competition with the local community for water and other basic resources implicates human rights. Defining work contracts? Wages, working hours, rest breaks, and a multitude of other issues are human rights. Negotiating with suppliers? Their working conditions and environment impacts may expose you to human rights reputational and legal liability. True sustainability requires every department and function of the company to understand and manage their human rights impacts.
2. Human rights is the language of the people
A few years ago, I was visiting a mining town. Community members had surrounded the worksite, demanding that their rights be respected. Meanwhile, the company thought it could address their concerns by referring to its CSR policy and restating its commitment to sustainability.
The people were speaking in human rights, while the company was speaking in CSR. I've seen this disconnect dozens of times in my career. The companies that bridge it, I've found, are the ones that learn to answer in the language in which they're being addressed. Whether you're a mining company or a software firm or a retail store, human rights allows you to hear the concerns of your employees, customers, and communities—and, more importantly, answer them.
3. Human rights is the essence of sustainability
Think for a moment about what “human rights” really means—go beyond all the technical stuff, the political baggage, the complicated conventions. Human rights protects every dimension of a person: from basic security (e.g. freedom from torture and slavery), to bodily needs (e.g. access to food and housing), to society and government (e.g. freedom of expression, privacy, and education).
Simply put, a sustainable world must be built upon this blueprint of basic human dignity. That's why you see human rights language and principles in every effort to build a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world, from 1920’s League of Nations to 1945’s UN Charter to 2015’s Sustainable Development Goals. Human rights is the cornerstone of sustainability, and companies serious about pursuing sustainability recognize that it's impossible without starting from these fundamental principles.
4. Human rights are universal
Multinational companies have a particular organizational challenge: They operate across borders, employ different nationalities, and interact with a huge range of cultures. From country to country, they have to contend with different legal systems, cultures, and ways of operating.
And yet, across the vast diversity of these political and legal systems, human rights enjoy unanimous support. Every country in the world has stood behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for almost 70 years. For the private sector, the UN Human Rights Council, as well as organizations ranging from The Coca-Cola Company to Amnesty International, have universally agreed to the principle that companies should respect human rights throughout their operations.
This broad consensus means that companies do not have to argue for human rights. They are already accepted and understood. As opposed to other frameworks for social performance, CSR, sustainability, or corporate citizenship, human rights are comprehensive and non-negotiable everywhere they are applied.
5. Human rights have both legal clarity and ethical imperative
The human rights field was designed to be broad—a universal recognition of the inherent dignity of every human life on our planet. Then the lawyers got ahold of it. The broad values of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been boiled down to specifics, defined in more than 80 different international instruments and conventions, subjected to monitoring of special rapporteurs and UN treaty bodies, and made into reporting and periodic review systems. The gray zones have been adjudicated in hundreds of court rulings. We now have clear international jurisprudence and practice covering almost every area of human rights. The field, in a little less than 70 years, has gone from an inspiring art to the legal science of compliance.
And that's not a bad thing. Companies are big organizations, and sometimes it’s difficult to operationalize broad, inspiring values—whereas it’s quick and straightforward to operationalize compliance and requirements of practice. But after 70 years of legal maturity, balance is the ultimate offering of the human rights field. Human rights still retain the values upon which they were first founded. Far from becoming a compliance exercise, human rights challenge companies to refine their practices by engaging with the people who are affected by their operations. These components—art and science—mean that companies have clear definitions of best practices, as well as ways to tailor their approach to their own operations and aspirations for contributing to the wider world.
At BSR, we are responding to the call of our member companies for greater support on human rights issues. We are rebuilding and ramping up our human rights services and activities for BSR members and partners, built upon the lessons of our six-month listening tour, the messages in our annual survey, and our 25 years in the field.
But, ultimately, we see that expanding in this area is not only a response to a business need. It’s also a response to a human rights need. Our world committed to the principle of human dignity many years ago. Now, we need one of the most powerful forces in the world, business, to get behind the commitment and be a force for progress.