Photo: TUC. Rana Plaza disaster anniversary action on Oxford Street, 2014.

Harnessing Value Chains: Bring the Rights Back In

By Francis West, Head of Private Sector Policy & Advocacy, Unicef UK

Harnessing Value Chains: Bring the Rights Back In

How can we harness supply chains for the SDGs? Bring the rights back in.

With the September Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals fast approaching, the years of wrangling over goals, targets and indicators has now reached fever pitch. Throughout, a consensus has endured that business has a crucial role. In order to deliver a framework that includes vast ambitions ranging from ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against children, to achieving full and productive employment and decent work for all, the business sector must be engaged.

However, quite how global value chains can be directed towards these goals and targets remains a moot point. For those that have followed the progress of the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights since 2011, the answer seems clear: Bring the rights back in.

After six years of extensive consultation, the Guiding Principles were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council and are now acknowledged as the authoritative normative framework for states and business in managing the potential or actual negative impacts on people arising from business activities. The Principle’s central concept of human rights due diligence has received active support from both business and government. The logic goes that if companies are putting the proper processes in place across their businesses and supply chains and responding to minor infringements as they happen, then shocking human tragedies like Rana Plaza should be avoided.

It seems remarkable then that neither the Principles, nor due diligence, made their way into the current proposal for Sustainable Development Goals. This has not been lost on Margaret Jungk, the Chair of the UN Working Group on Business & Human Rights, who last week wrote to the lead negotiators of the SDGs explaining that “States must set a clear vision for connecting the increasing role of the private sector and businesses in development with accountability and agreed standards for business practices aligned with human rights.”

Unicef UK believes that private sector engagement with the SDGs is an opportunity to further embed the responsibility that businesses have to respect human and child rights, and the expectation that businesses should be conducting due diligence.

But why will this approach deliver greater impact in the value chain for companies looking to support the SDGs? The traditional process for determining corporate sustainability priorities considers the impact on an amorphous group of ‘stakeholders’ combined with ‘materiality’ or business relevance. This means that some impacts on people may be ignored if they don’t have an effect on the performance of the business. This differs from a rights-based approach, as showcased in Unilever’s recent Human Rights Report, which would urge prioritisation of issues on the basis of the company’s impact on individuals, families and children.

Human Rights Due Diligence also requires consultation with stakeholders that are potentially or actually affected by a company’s operations and supply chain, particularly vulnerable groups, rather than those organisations that have best managed to grab the company’s attention. For Unicef UK, that means bringing the voices of children into this process so that a company can understand how they affect their lives beyond the traditional focus on child labour. For example, those effects might be felt directly when a school is relocated due to land acquisition and development, or indirectly through the wages, working hours and maternity leave offered to working parents of children.

If a company integrates the voices of the most vulnerable into its human rights impact assessments, it will be better placed to determine where to focus its efforts to positively support the delivery of the SDGs. This is very clear from the experience of the telecoms company Millicom. After conducting a child rights impact assessment across its supply chain with Unicef, Millicom supported the creation of a new SMS service in Tanzania that allows parents to register new births as well as those of children under five on any mobile phone, straight to a centrally-run database. Birth registration- the subject of another SDG target- rose from nine per cent to 40 per cent in the pilot region of Mbeya in six months.

Of course, there are some instances where conditions in countries where global value chains are based mean that companies cannot act unilaterally. In these instances, collaborative advocacy with competitors can enhance social impact. A good example of this is when H&M and other major retailers lobbied the Cambodian government to raise wages in the garment sector.

Much has been made of the need for an ‘enabling environment for business’ in the SDGs. Perhaps companies advocating for regulation to raise standards around some of the most intractable rights issues in global supply chains suggests that businesses have a role in shaping that environment for the better.

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