It’s time for business leaders to raise their voices for human rights

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14 November, 2019


WBCSD insights



Kitrhona Cerri

Kitrhona Cerri says Unilever’s Alan Jope and Microsoft’s Brad Smith are among 35 senior business executives that have responded to WBCSD’s call for companies to work together to drive transformational change in supply chains

Something strange has been happening in the world of business and human rights. Leaders of multinational corporations around the globe are speaking out about the negative human rights challenges faced in their operations and supply chains. Where most companies seek to avoid any public association with human rights issues, these business leaders are breaking the mould – and they want others to do the same.

Here at WBCSD, we spoke to our member companies to get behind this trend. We found a growing number of senior executives who are increasingly aware of the foundational business responsibility to respect human rights – and of their role in raising the bar for their companies, industries and supply chains. But beyond this, they are sharing an inspiring message with their peers and partners: that they have the collective power to drive transformative change in people’s lives, especially those of the most vulnerable.

Taking action to tackle systemic human rights issues is becoming accepted as one of the most powerful opportunities companies have to lift people out of poverty

Governments around the world are working on National Action Plans to implement the UNGPs and are increasingly adopting the principles into national law. Indexes, databases and benchmarks are being developed that track the performance of companies and industries. This information is being used by investors to inform decisions on capital allocation and cost. It is also making its way into mainstream media, sparking higher levels of public interest in business performance. At the same time, support for companies is more available than ever. The UNGPs are being translated into detailed tools and guidance for business, joint action platforms are emerging to tackle issues in specific industries and geographies, and large companies are sharing their expectations and expertise with partners and co-contractors along their supply chains.

This wave of information, activity and expectations is pushing corporate action on human rights beyond minimum standards, risk-management and compliance, and into companies’ strategies, purpose and goals. As business awareness rises, taking action to tackle systemic human rights issues in workplaces and value chains is becoming accepted as one of the most powerful opportunities companies have to lift people out of poverty, discrimination and abuse, and transform the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.

It requires that we have the courage of our convictions. And that we need to clearly communicate the company’s commitment to human rights

The momentum behind the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has added fuel to this positive movement. It has helped businesses to realise that, by contributing to the achievement of human rights for all, they can play a pivotal role in building the peaceful and inclusive societies envisioned by the Global Goals.

So what can business leaders do?

ENGAGE transparently with stakeholders. This involves listening directly to the people a business can impact to understand their perspective and inform the course of action taken. It requires sharing your human rights message with suppliers, partners, customers, investors, industry peers and governments.

According to Bertrand Camus, CEO of Suez: “To meet the challenges of human rights, leaders have to engage personally and instil a collective dynamic, both in their companies and in their markets. At company level, it translates into constant contact with the field, listening and paying attention to all, and especially to the most vulnerable.”

COLLABORATE beyond your comfort zone. This involves engaging widely with the broad range of stakeholders involved to tackle endemic and systemic human rights issues. It requires working with others in your industry to build leverage, change incentives and raise the bar. Most importantly, it means going beyond business as usual in order to develop the unique dialogues and collaborations needed to address the root causes of complex issues.

As Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, reminds his peers: “As CEOs we have a duty to ensure that fundamental rights and freedoms are respected and upheld, not only within our businesses but throughout our value chain. There’s much that our organisations can achieve individually, but there’s even greater value when we come together through partnerships and collaborations. Ultimately, we all have the same goal: to create a fairer and more inclusive world.”

So far, WBCSD’s Call to Action has been endorsed by senior executives of 35 member companies with more than 2.8m employees and vast global supply chains