Effective CSR change will require top corporate executives to convene and share ideas, practices and solutions

Global organizations today are under pressure to demonstrate their commitment to human rights as a part of their overall corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. Many companies have made important CSR strides in the last several years, particularly in the areas of sustainability and the environment, with enterprise leaders paving the way. However, strategies to eradicate human rights abuses and human trafficking are taking longer to permeate and gain traction in the business world for a host of reasons. The best way to advance the cause will be collaboration and leadership, according to some of the most effective practitioners, but the journey ahead is long.

“We need to create an open, interactive environment, where any and all companies who value human rights initiatives can come together to learn from each other,” said Alison Wortman, Manager, International Development & Advocacy at Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company, a specialty coffee supplier. “Leaders in the field of social responsibility need to realize that part of their work is to share their knowledge with those who need guidance.”

Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company lives that promise. The company, whose tagline is “Specialty coffee as a vehicle for positive change,” embraces the idea that business can be a global force for good – and also thrive financially – using its coffee as the vehicle. “There are tremendous lessons to be learned in this unique business model, no matter the scale of the company,” Wortman said.

Advancements by companies such as Dean’s Beans can prove the value and benefits for companies embracing a human rights focus, and those wins may give the human rights issue the best opportunity to gain greater traction and focus in the business world.

“Socially conscious companies will have an exponentially greater global impact if they collaborate,” Wortman said, “rather than hoard their tools for success and operate in a silo.”

“Respecting human rights applies to all businesses, large and small,” said Kelli Schlegel, Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights Manager at Intel, who spearheads the semiconductor manufacturer’s corporate-wide human rights program.

According to Schlegel, “the majority of leading companies [in human rights advancement] are large multinationals, and they can play a role in helping those [smaller] companies beginning their journey by providing guidance, developing standards and engaging in targeted forums and events attended by companies at varying levels of maturity.

“It’s important for companies to share their journey, successes and challenges to advance respect for human rights in companies of all sizes,” Schlegel explained.

Advocates for human rights leaders, such as the United Nations, governments, and non-governmental volunteer organizations, or NGOs, also play a significant role in guiding companies that are in need of human rights reframing. CSR experts agree that the more these groups can join forces with organizations that are making strides in the area of human rights and work towards a common goal, the better.

“Companies just embarking on their human rights goals do not need to reinvent the wheel,” said Kelly Melia-Teevan, Advisor, Global Issues and Public Policy at Chevron.

Melia-Teevan explained that Chevron was a key participant in the development of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. “Because of our experience, we recognized the value of the principles as they were being developed,” she said.

“The Guiding Principles not only emphasize shared responsibility between governments and the private sector, but outline a path for companies to operationalize a commitment to successfully implementing a human rights policy. They encourage companies to assess and then address potential human rights impacts.”

Laying Out The Plan

According to Berry, beginning to implement human rights improvements means various stakeholders must work together to find the most effective pathway, but the challenge is that economic demand isn’t always clear-cut.

“[There is] demand in economic terms – people want products and services that have a lower carbon impact,” Berry said. “[There is] also demand in the social activist terms – people want companies to demonstrate a level of responsible behavior. Consumer behavior can sometime lack the connection between these two forms of demand. There are people demanding better behavior, but there is no impact on economic demand.”

Where human rights lacks economic demand, NGOs and government agencies alike can foster change. “Historically, setting a global agenda for social responsibility has fallen on international NGOs and government agencies,” Wortman said. “For example, take the Millennium Development Goals set out by the United Nations in 2007.

Wortman said these specific and wide-reaching goals, including reducing child mortality rates and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, quickly trickled down to strategic plans and objectives for NGO’s globally. “They were eager to get to work; however, the adoption of these same goals was missing from for-profit companies,” she said.

Traditionally, private, for-profit companies will not make a substantial change unless it is required to generate revenue. “To understand why these goals were not so readily adopted by private companies, we need to look at what drives them: consumers and profits,” Wortman said. “To set a global agenda, we need consumers to use their purchasing power to demand that human rights and social justice be assigned as a global task.”

Consumers have begun to do just that, and Millennials play a significant role in propelling that forward. They are set to eclipse Baby Boomers as the generation with the highest spending power. Close to three-quarters (73%) of Millennials said they “are willing to pay more for a product if it comes from a sustainable brand,” according to the Nielsen Global Sustainability Report.

Adherence to human rights practices can also be a differentiating factor for companies across industries that are eager to stand out from the competition by positioning themselves as forward-thinking and conscientious. It requires a solid framework for enacting these initiatives. Schlegel suggested organizations start out slowly and build these practices over time.

“While developing a human rights program may appear overwhelming, if companies start small, take a targeted approach and work to build respect into the company culture, success can be achieved,” Schlegel said.

Chevron, Dean’s Beans, and Intel are among the companies working in tandem with government agencies and NGOs, to further human rights and corporate social responsibility.

Government, of course, must continue to play a central role,” Melia-Teevan said. “Government should engage with companies, and seek to implement sustainable policy solutions that enable and incentivize companies to efficiently manage their human rights performance.”

Intel, NetHope and the UN Foundation, along with additional corporate partners such as CDW and Microsoft, developed an Information and Communication Technologies playbook for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which includes case studies and a call to action for companies wishing to develop their own sustainable goals.

“The playbook looks in detail at the role of ICT as a tool to help enable the new [goals] to impact and address key global challenges,” said Jocelyn Cascio, Supply Chain Sustainability Manager at Intel. “It identifies technology trends, opportunities and innovative case studies that global leaders can reference as they begin to strategize on how to implement the SDGs.”

Cascio said pressing initiatives on a global scale can also encourage real change when companies band together. “The very real and pressing issue of forced and bonded labor around the globe is a good example of where innovative partnerships are being formed to tackle the challenge,” she said.

The Responsible Labor Initiative, which focuses on bringing together multiple industries to drive problem-solving action, and the Conflict Free Smelter Initiative, which addresses Human Rights abuses in connection with sourcing minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are among these types of partnerships that are inspiring change.

Leading By Example

Successful leaders in corporate social responsibility and human rights share common leadership qualities, including transparency. “You don’t have to be perfect,” said Phil Berry, former Sustainability Director at Nike and Senior Human Rights Advisor at Business for Social Responsibility. “[But] you have to try.” No company at the head of positive human rights reframing got there overnight. However, they did put in the work to get there and they took their cues from leaders in CSR.

“Companies looking to get started should ask successful CSR companies about motivation, how they decided which initiatives to pursue, and what their very first steps were,” Wortman said. “These CSR companies should also freely share their biggest initial challenges, and how they overcame them.

Trying also involves having a process of learning from the mistakes that will inevitably happen. “You can’t stop it all, but you can only learn from it if you have a process to learn from [mistakes],” Berry said.

Employing the use of vendors with proven CSR track records wherever possible can also bolster the cause. Dean’s Beans practices that by using Seventh Generation cleaning and paper products and solar energy panels from PV Squared, as well as additional locally sourced, sustainable products.

“By changing the ‘little things’ in your corporate environment – coffee, paper products, notebooks, composting, etc. – your company can live your ethics while influencing your employees to become ethical consumers themselves,” Wortman said.

Lessons in what went wrong among socially responsible companies as they implemented changes is also instructive for those starting out.

“Companies on the forefront of human rights related initiatives likely had the same questions and challenges when they began their human rights journey,” Schlegel said. “Completing an assessment to determine the company’s most salient human rights risks and potential impacts is recommended to gain perspective.”

She advised turning to the guidance around linkage and severity of impact in the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights to determine which risks require immediate attention.

“If your company doesn’t have the expertise, look to peers in other organizations for guidance, and – if necessary – consider hiring a consultant in the business and human rights field to bridge the gap.”

Cascio agrees that organizations would be wise to assess their own human rights risk and tailor the solution accordingly. “Develop and use a risk/values-based assessment approach that aligns with your organization’s priorities, business model and culture,” she said.

Creating New Approaches

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach that will enable organizations to move to the forefront of Human Rights leadership,” Cascio said. “A large, multi-national, public company is going to have different areas of risk and value that are addressed by a Human Rights Program than a smaller, single-geography, privately held company.”

To enable attention to human rights issues to spread throughout the private sector, enough companies must be dedicated to devoting “the appropriate amount of diligence to analyzing its specific risks and opportunities, and then making the specific business case for investing in Human Rights programs that align with its analysis,” Cascio added.

Wortman said a commitment to activism and education are also crucial. “It is important for each company to recognize and communicate the long-term advantages of championing human rights,” she said.

Partnerships are crucial to effectively promote respect for human rights, economic development, environmental stewardship and every other aspect of corporate responsibility,” Melia-Teevan said. “Governments, NGOs and companies each bring unique perspective and skills to the table to help understand and address challenges and opportunities.

“For example, governments and NGOs can help the private sector better understand some of the potential concerns of local communities, while the private sector can help governments and NGOs better understand a company’s perspective, and how all of those may best align.

“If further regulation is developed, it should [incorporate] input from the private sector as well as civil society, Melia-Teevan said. “Equally essential to long-term success are collaborative multi-stakeholder initiatives that allow companies, governments and NGOs to build trusting relationships that enable constructive and productive conversations.”

And the private sector needs to see the benefit to them.

“We need a business-focused model for human rights,” Berry said. “One that explains human rights in business language, and describes business systems that create business benefit. We need to demystify the subject, and explain what needs to be done in business terms of logic and benefit.”

There’s an ethical change that needs to happen, and it has to tie in with who the company is in terms of their brand, their corporate policies, and what they want to promote. Consortiums and partnerships are a good first step.