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 :
- Responsible Sourcing and Conflict Minerals focused on the controversial supply chains for natural resources used to make technology devices, which now come under SEC scrutiny, thanks to the Dodd-Frank financial reform act;
- The Internet and Human Rights: In Conversation with Rebecca MacKinnon, a New America Foundation Senior Fellow, focused particularly on free speech in repressive regimes such as China. (Along these lines, Harvard’s Berkman Center on the Internet and Society sponsors the “verdict of the herd” Herdict website, which serves as a real-time crowd-sourced aggregator of repressive policies restricting Web access.)
- In Conversation with Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, who described Oxfam’s three-pronged focus on humanitarian work, long-term economic development, and private sector advocacy.
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.