How to Effectively Engage Business on Human Rights

By Urvi Kelkar, Global Sustainable Development Manager, SABMiller

How to Effectively Engage Business on Human Rights

Since the publication of the UN Guiding Principles and new regulation such as theModern Slavery Act, engaging business leaders on human rights has become extremely important. As the lead on human rights at SABMiller, one of my challenges has been to demystify the topic and help people focus on what it means in practice– all the different ways in which a business impacts on people, in its operations, value chains and communities.

Human rights language (often academic or legalistic) is very important, but is distinctly different from business speak – and often gets in the way of influencing practical action by business professionals.

So this is a call for humanising human rights. Let’s re-frame the way we talk about the issue – focusing less on technical, compliance requirements and more on why these issues matter to people and add value to business. Let’s focus on building emotional connection and commitment from employees and business leaders, rather than positioning it purely as a compliance and risk management issue.

Take for example, the right to an adequate standard of living. Many business leaders may not immediately recognise how this fits into core business priorities and often this is viewed as the responsibility of local governments. But ask any business leader whether they would feel comfortable with workers or farmers in their supply chain not having access to adequate food, water or decent living conditions – and the answer is a definite no. Plus there is a clear business rationale. If local communities lack access to food or water, global businesses will be seen as competitors for scarce resources- which negatively impacts growth, damages reputation and threatens licence to operate.

Another opportunity for embedding human rights is to link it into a company’s wider sustainability strategy and demonstrate how it drives business value.

For example, a couple of months ago I was in Uganda working with our subsidiary Nile Breweries. Over a decade ago, Nile Breweries became the first business to create a new brand Eagle Lager using locally sourced sorghum – thereby creating market demand, improved incomes and social benefits for an estimated 20,000 local farmers. The business is in the process of reviewing its sourcing strategy to build on past success and further strengthen the supply chain – with a focus on improving productivity, quality and transparency.

This was the perfect opportunity to sit down with the Nile Breweries team and build a quantified business case for initiatives which would increase incomes and standard of living, improve food security and empower women in the value chain – not as separate human rights projects, but as an integral part of sourcing strategy.

The use of data and insights is key to demonstrating why human rights matter. For example, a recent impact assessment study in Uganda showed that yields can improve by 20% if women and men are jointly involved in farm management, training and decision-making (as opposed to the current model where men lead on most activities). This creates a very clear rationale for initiatives promoting gender equality.

In summary, some of my biggest learnings from embedding human rights into business practices at SABMiller and other global businesses are:

1) It is important to take the time to define which human rights are most salient for your business and therefore what effective due-diligence looks like. The best way to do this involves gathering input from multiple teams within the business as well as a range of external stakeholders.

2) Human rights don’t fit neatly into any one team or business function. We must take steps to engage people from Human Resources (for employees); Procurement (for suppliers); Sales & Distribution (for retailers and distributors), Corporate Affairs (for local communities) and other functions depending on the company’s structure and business model.

3) It’s worth investing energy and resources to “translate” the different human rights into language and practical case studies which non-experts can easily understand. This will help create a culture of thinking about potential human rights risks – rather than trying to trying to manage the issue through a tick-box compliance model.

4) It is more effective to integrate human rights into existing strategies and programmes, rather than trying to launch new, separate initiatives. This involves creating tools and resources to equip colleagues and suppliers to apply a human rights lens to core business operations.

5) Some of the most significant human rights risk lie in a company’s extended value chains – therefore collaboration with suppliers and partners to build transparency is crucial.

Editor’s Note:

This article first appeared on LinkedIn and is reproduced with permission.

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