Marking a positive change, this year’s U.N. Forum on Business and Human Rights provided attendees with increased coordination between the public and private sectors than in years’ past. Attendees noted several factors for this.
First, it’s a numbers game. The private sector attended at a greater rate, which all agreed is key to any meaningful growth of human rights. Second and more substantively, there was a recognition that civil society and businesses approach the subject of human rights in supply chains from different motivational standpoints, and thus employ different tactics and language to advance their goals. A particularly germane panel session worked to bridge the the gap between sectors by using a boardroom simulation to demonstrate the decision-making process involved in implementing human rights practices into business. Additionally, the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor, used the Forum to advance the idea of an ethical recruitment clearinghouse or repository of best practices and resources across regions, industries, and legal regime policies. Only through enhanced coordination and information sharing can all sectors effectively address the challenging and evolving space of responsible recruitment. Progress aside, more needs to be done to enable the Forum to achieve its objectives.
Despite heavier corporate representation, there was no sector, except for electronics, that was well represented. While consumer-facing industries, like the garment and electronics industries, seem to be the most matured industries in terms of integrating sustainable human rights practices into their supply chains (or, at a minimum, developing processes by which to do so), other industries need to take steps to prioritize human rights purely from a reputational standpoint. Corporate representation is not just limited by industry, but also by size. Forum attendees noted the absence of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). SMEs are already working at a disadvantage because they have less funds to spend on corporate social responsibility initiatives and conferences, so there is a fear that these entities are being excluded from the discussion on business and human rights and therefore are not taken into account in the development of national action plans.
To address these engagement challenges, participants in the webinar called for more leadership and coordination in this space. Companies already taking steps to embed human rights across their supply chains should share best practices with the entire industry to help ease the transition to a more inclusive recruitment process. Civil society organizations (CSOs) should better coordinate and communicate amongst themselves to avoid duplication and the dispensing of limited resources. Multistakeholder initiatives can be a platform on which both of these objectives can be met.
The second key takeaway from the conference focused on the need for specificity. For example, the U.N. Guiding Principles are very general, and businesses are looking for practical, day-to day guidance. CSOs can provide immense value by translating these lofty principles into tangible steps companies can implement. Requesting that companies improve their traceability is useless without providing them a way in which to do so. Specific to the webinar focus on responsible recruitment, long-term relationships and sustainable contracts with suppliers were touted as the gold standard for creating supply chain transparency. But the mechanics of building long-term relationships can be challenging to a purely bottom-line oriented company. When major brands play suppliers off of each other to achieve the lowest pricing, labor abuses or other human rights violations can ultimately be behind the pricing differential.
CSOs can be instrumental in identifying those instances and helping brands identify the price point that both cuts costs but also upholds human rights. Webinar participants identified the need for further integration of sustainability and pricing into buyer-supplier relationships and distinguished CSOs as important partners for companies seeking to bridge those seemingly conflicting values.
Ultimately, more work needs to be done to better protect human rights in the business sector. The U.N. Forum provides a valuable platform through which to launch much needed collaboration, but it is incomplete on its own.