Human rights in the forest sector: leaving no one behind.

This is the third of a series of blogs from the members of WBCSD’s Forest Solutions Group (FSG) presenting diverse perspectives on the forest sector’s many connections with key global development issues.

These voices from the forest sector bring to life FSG’s mission to advance the circular bioeconomy and a thriving forest sector that sustains healthy productive forests & people's well-being (see FSG video here). 

Published: 16 Jul 2021
Author: Ylva Stiller, Stora Enso
Type: Insight

Every one of us, no matter who we are or where we are born, is entitled to the same basic rights and freedoms. All companies, also in the forest sector, must ensure these rights are respected.

Shortly after the Second World War, world leaders came together to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to lay down the ground rules for how states should protect human rights. There is a similar echo in how the world is now preparing to rebuild after the Covid-19 pandemic in a way that considers environmental and climate aspects but also takes account of how human rights are protected.

Steps in the right direction

The Declaration of Human Rights was meant to regulate states, not companies. But the world has changed: today, companies may have budgets close to the GDP’s of entire countries and use significant power in global markets. And as we know, although most states have ratified the Declaration, many have not always lived up to its expectations.

To bring clarity to who is responsible for what, the United Nations has issued the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). According to the UNGPs, states have the responsibility to protect people from human rights abuses by passing and enforcing laws, while companies must respect human rights in all their operations. Both must be prepared to remedy – to make better – any human rights violations.

The UNGPs were intended to be a first step in steering companies in the right direction. I’m proud to say that Stora Enso and leading members of WBCSD have chosen to do just that. In 2019, 35 top business executives from across the world called for urgent business leadership on respect for human rights by becoming signatories of WBCSD’s CEO Guide to Human Rights. The issue has also risen on the agenda of WBCSD’s Forest Solutions Group as its members come together to work on the implementation of the UNGPs in the forest sector.  

Respecting human rights in the forest sector

Just like any other industry, the forest and forest products sector also needs to identify and address potential impacts on people everywhere in the value chain. That includes supply chains that are often global, extensive, and complex: they can include tens of thousands of suppliers in several tiers. It’s challenging to keep track of the sustainability performance of them all, but the effort must be made.

It’s equally important to ensure that the rights of local communities are respected. Forest product companies typically operate in rural areas and have a big impact on the livelihoods and land use possibilities of local residents – and often the local environment. We, as companies, must make sure that we help these communities thrive and minimize our negative impacts.

More recently, identifying and addressing potential human rights impacts in customer relationships has come under more scrutiny, and rightly so. As customer due diligence is still an evolving practice, and there is little advice and practical experience to draw on, regulation might provide more clarity on what is expected.

A level playing field

The point of human rights due diligence is simple: companies need to understand the negative impacts they may have on people and then make a plan to avoid, end, and fix those impacts. Making the effort can also bring business benefits, such as better risk management, increased investor ratings, and improved company image.

Until recently, it has mainly been up to companies to decide how to do this – or if to do it at all. In my work, I have seen how leading companies have put in the effort and resources and invested in voluntary measures around human rights, while others have chosen not to. Regulation would help to ensure a level playing field where all companies are required to take action. Like Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission, put it recently: “Just like we cannot afford to leave anyone behind, we cannot allow one sector, one company, or one region to freeride.”

It’s about people

But this isn’t just about companies. This is about people. The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, has brought to light the vulnerability of global supply chains and how unemployment hits people unequally. In my eyes, this highlights how important it is to ensure that all companies are required to understand how they impact people and what they should do to be better.

In addition, climate change cannot be solved without solving social issues: if people cannot feed themselves, we cannot expect them to seek to be carbon neutral or circular. As we are once again rebuilding the world, it needs to come with a transformation. A transformation that considers both the environmental and social implications of our actions – as individuals, as companies, and as states. Because the cost of doing nothing would be too high for our children and grandchildren to bear.

Ylva Stiller, Head Social Impact at Stora Enso

If you are interested in the topic of business and human rights, this recent blog post by James Gomme (Director People & Society, WBCSD) looks back over the first 10 years of the UNGPs, and offers insights into the future direction of WBCSD’s work in this space.  

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