Unilever: Enhancing Livelihoods, Advancing Human Rights
At Unilever, we’re striving to build a company that represents a responsible and successful business model, in which business exists to serve – not take from – society. The company’s commitment to this ambition is reflected in the fact that they created my role, which promotes Unilever’s social impact across our value chain. In 2014, we strengthened the Enhancing Livelihoods ambition of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan and under our new pillar “Fairness in the Workplace” we committed to report publically on our implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Transparency is critical to engage everyone in bringing solutions to complex issues. That’s why we agreed to pilot the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework and, over the past year, we have been gathering information from across our own operations and extended supply chain. We have learned a lot and are proud to be the first company to create a detailed, stand-alone report using the Framework.
Based on the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework and methodology, the report focuses on eight key salient issues in depth, describing the progress made and analysing the challenges faced in each area. These are: Discrimination, Fair Wages, Forced Labour, Freedom of Association, Harassment, Health and Safety, Land Rights and Working Hours.
At times it has been uncomfortable to discuss some of these challenges in a public forum. Often transparency has been penalised therefore, business did not commonly engage in addressing problems. These sorts of issues are not exclusive to Unilever, and I firmly believe that if we are to solve them, we need to step outside of our comfort zone and speak openly about the challenges we face.
It is clear that in order to address systemic human rights abuses such as human trafficking, we cannot do it alone. These are complex issues and there are no quick fixes. We need collective action and a mechanism to engage pre-emptively if we want to achieve transformational, sustainable change. Collaboration models are critical.
The scale of our supply chain poses a significant challenge. We have around 76 000 suppliers across the globe, we sell products in over 190 countries and we directly employ around 172 000 people. And that is only the direct relationships over which we have influence. Each country has its own cultural norms, social, legal and economic challenges and often very divergent opinions on what it means to respect human rights.
It is clear that addressing human rights is everybody’s business. It cannot be limited to a function or a department but to every single individual within the company. And that while compliance audits are important tools that bring accountability and help us understand the overall direction of improvement, they are not an end in themselves, providing only a snapshot in time and working best as part of a broader approach to collaboration, engagement and continuous improvement.
We’ve learned some really valuable lessons during the past year. Many of the issues we face are incredibly complicated. There are no simple solutions.
Respect for human rights is the necessary foundation of our business. But we are cognisant that we must build on this foundation and engage actively in the promotion of rights if we want to succeed in our commitments.
We will know we have been successful when 172 000 people around the world understand what this agenda means in their job, and are empowered to translate it into action. When they are including human rights in every decision that they make. When we have evolved beyond “do no harm” to “do good.”
I do hope this report serves as an incentive and catalyst for action. That it recognises the progress made by the Company and the individuals who make it happen every day. I also trust it recognises the valuable contribution that stakeholders’ consultation and collective initiatives bring to the table. Yielding some challenging questions and potential criticism is also part of the process. I only hope that our honesty helps to stimulate a worthwhile two-way conversation with our employees, suppliers, stakeholders and the wider business community and prompts impactful action.
Together, we can make real, lasting change.
This blog forms part of a longer Q&A which first appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business Hub