The Business Impact on Human Rights

The TakeAway: Social materiality gains traction as the role of business in advancing human rights attracts wider support.

After years of neglect, companies now increasingly consider their impacts on human rights as material issues, with clear impacts on the bottom line.  Social materiality, the notion coined by human rights expert Liz Umlas here on MurnPost, takes the next step of considering corporate impacts on stakeholders’ well-being, beyond the narrow lens of financial risk—and beyond the existing community of social investors.  These perspectives showed up repeatedly at the Business for Social Responsibility Conference last week, where business, academic, and NGO leaders cited  human rights as a top priority for the coming year.  And business respect for human rights will be codified next year by the United Nations within a framework of guiding principles developed through an ambitious worldwide consultation process.

Human rights featured prominently in a number of sessions at the BSR Conference, including :

Meanwhile, Oxfam’s Poverty Footprint project represents a change in how business defines value.  Senior Program Officer Kyle Cahill described it as “an attempt to provide a measurable, systematic way for companies to analyze their impacts on people throughout the value chain.”  Still in Beta mode, the highly-collaborative methodology used for the Poverty Footprint will be formally released in January 2011, for public feedback on improvement.

The BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Poll 2010 found business leaders citing workers rights (32 percent) and human rights (31 percent) as top priorities for their companies’ CSR / sustainability efforts over 2011—more so than climate change, which 27 percent of respondents considered urgent.  With climate risk now firmly considered a material business issue, these results boost the case for the social materiality of human rights to require the same levels of duty, loyalty, and care accorded financial materiality.

And that’s the recurring message of John Ruggie, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) of the United Nations  for business and human rights.  Last month, Ruggie held consultations with Member States in Geneva and Paris as he prepares a draft of the Guiding Principles for the Implementation of the Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework. No longer viewed as a separate issue relevant only in certain parts of the developing world, the business and human rights agenda now comprises a complex mix of social concerns, including poverty, gender, human trafficking, health and wellness, food and shelter, education, environmental sustainability, security and protection of civilians, supply chain monitoring, and even access to new technologies and the Internet.

Ruggie will present this framework to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011. The Business and Human Rights Resource Center hosts an online platform that posts comments on the SRSG’s work, and later this month, the Guiding Principles will be posted on the SGSR’s online forum, and where views and comments can be shared through early 2011.

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