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Digital technologies are opening up new possibilities to help companies develop better solutions to predict, prevent and respond to human rights abuses in their value chains. But what does this mean for companies in practice? What can some of these new technologies tangibly be used for as far as business and human rights are concerned?
Since the launch of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) in 2011, companies’ attention has been directed towards a series of developments supporting business action to address human rights issues. Earlier this year, we highlighted how legal regulations and benchmarking are increasing the pressure on companies to disclose human rights-related information and subsequently take meaningful action in light of their findings (here). In this article, we explore how emerging tech-based tools and instruments hold the potential to raise the bar when it comes to embedding respect for human rights in company operations and along value chains - ultimately improving the lives of millions.
Digital technologies are opening up numerous new possibilities to identify, analyze and remedy human rights risks. New technology is allowing improved verification of data, making findings more reliable for business decision-making, reporting and external scrutiny. Beyond this, emerging technology is being adapted to provide tools for companies to develop better solutions to predict, prevent and respond to human rights abuses in their value chains and ultimately enable the people upon whom business success relies to enjoy increased dignity, security, freedom and opportunity in their private and professional lives.
But what does this mean for companies in practice? What can some of these new technologies tangibly be used for as far as business and human rights are concerned?
Data and information collection
New technologies enable companies and other stakeholders to receive information that indicates the violation of people’s land property, whether products come from verified suppliers, or if health and safety standards are being respected. Satellites, drones, balloons and other aerial vehicles can monitor land, natural ecosystems, movement of materials and products from origin to points of sale. Smart sensors, like radio-frequency identification (RFID) and smart dust are small to microscopic wireless technologies used to tag items with unique identification, gather data on materials, physical environment and natural ecosystems or simply track and trace materials and/or products (often without requiring human intervention on the ground).
Another way of collecting information is through hotlines, apps and chatbots. These instruments can be used to give workers a voice to express their concerns and ideas as well as to report human rights abuses either directly to their own employers, to government authorities or to third parties.
Unilever is exploring the innovative use of traditional marketing tools and social media to communicate and interact with supply chain participants. The Responsible Labor Initiative, supported by Apple and Walmart, among others, uses mobile technology for worker surveys, training and helplines.
Emerging examples across the world
Data storage and analysis
The very large volume of data (big data) created by these technologies can be of great support in business decision-making, as they allow companies to confirm or reveal new patterns, trends and correlations. Businesses have always collected data; the real change big data brings to the picture comes from what is known as the ‘three Vs’ of Big Data:
In the context of human rights, all of the above allows business to strengthen their decisions related to human rights issues based on immense (rather than limited) data sets, and to respond more quickly – sometimes in real time, or even prevent an incident before it occurs.
As part of a partnership with the UN Human Rights Office, Microsoft developed “Rights View” - an information ‘dashboard’ that allows UN staff to aggregate large quantities of internal and external data on specific countries and types of rights violations in real time. This innovative system facilitates analysis, early warnings of emerging critical issues and guides appropriate responses. This tool is just one example of how technology can be harnessed to improve human rights.
Emerging examples across the world
Data ledger and visibility
A blockchain is a public digital ledger that is used to record transactions chronologically and publicly through distributed computing. While known to most for its use in cryptocurrencies, blockchain in fact offers numerous applications for non-financial purposes. Leveraging its key characteristics as a digital and decentralized ledger on which stored data is undeletable and unchangeable, blockchain allows the recording, tracking and verifying of any kind of transaction and event. In practice, blockchain has myriad uses, including:
WBCSD member companies are harnessing the power of blockchain and big data: Olam’s AtSource for example is a digital dashboard that provides instant access to data to understand and trace a product’s social and environmental footprint, and to support sustainability-driven business decisions.
A partnership between DNV GL and VeChain relies on blockchain to improve the transparency of product and supplier information. Starting in the food and beverage or retail and fashion industries, the partners plan to progressively expand to cover other industries in the future.
Emerging examples across the world
Challenges and considerations
New technology holds the potential to provide game-changing tools to address and eliminate modern forms of slavery, workplace accidents, child labor, sexual harassment and other human rights issues. With ever more information available and accessible to companies, consumers and investors, it is increasingly difficult for unpleasant facts about the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the products we use to be ignored or go unseen.
While technology may well assist in breaking down the barriers to improving corporate human rights performance and even solve persisting challenges, the implementation and scaling up of tech-based solutions face challenges of their own:
In the coming months, the WBCSD Social Impact team will continue to share insights and discuss the potential of technology for human rights, addressing some of the above challenges through webinars and a WBCSD initiative, aimed at supporting member companies in leveraging the transformative potential of technology for human rights.
Feel free to contact us to share your own experiences, challenges and suggestions.
“There is only one difference between a clean supply chain and one built on slavery. Good will.”
(Brian Iselin, President of slavefreetrade)
This article was previously published on World Business Council for Sustainable Development website and is reproduced with permission.
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