Why, and How, Business Needs to Change its Approach to the SDGs

By Sara Blackwell, Advisor, Shift

Shift, in collaboration with WBCSD, has launched a first-of-its-kind compendium of 15 real-life case studies that illustrate what various individual companies and collaborative initiatives are doing to put business respect for human rights into practice and how those efforts go beyond “doing no harm” to show great promise in making powerful and positive contributions to the SDGs.

Ever since they were endorsed in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals have been an increasingly hot topic for countless companies around the world. Each day, business is examining how it can best contribute to the ambitious goals and targets set out by Agenda 2030. Not all, however, are doing it right. Many are making the mistake of cherry-picking SDGs based on ease and marketability, rather than impact.

This needs to change.

Companies need to recognize that respecting human rights is one of the most significant ways in which all businesses can support the SDGs. A rights-based approach sets the groundwork for companies to boost their SDGs impacts exponentially, and it is key for any business that is serious about contributing to the Global Goals. 

The good news is, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights explicitly set out what international expectations are when it comes to how the private sector must assess and address risks to and impacts on people associated with business operations and value chains, regardless of a company’s size, sector, or location. 

The question, then, is how can business best integrate respect for human rights into its SDG strategies and activities?

First, all companies must ask themselves: what are the most severe (i.e. salient) risks to people and planet associated with our business? How do those risks map to the SDGs? And how can we lead and collaborate to tackle negative impacts in ways that maximize positive outcomes for people and our planet? These questions should drive any corporate strategy on the Global Goals and continuously inform implementation of that strategy.

And, for those companies who are capitalizing on the promising business opportunities presented by the SDGs, additional questions should include: How can we apply our business capabilities to develop and deliver new products or services that contribute to the SDGs, while at the same time minimizing negative impacts on people and planet?

To help companies understand the power of this approach in practice, Shift, in collaboration with WBCSD, has launched The Human Rights Opportunity, a first-of-its-kind compendium of 15 real-life case studies that illustrate what various individual companies and collaborative initiatives are doing to put business respect for human rights into practice and how those efforts go beyond “doing no harm” to show great promise in making powerful and positive contributions to the SDGs.

Showcasing efforts related to living wages, forced labor, gender equality, and land rights, the compendium spans a wide range of sectors and geographies, outlines both buyer and supplier experiences, and shares first-hand perspectives of the participating companies as well as of third-party actors involved in the various initiatives. Some examples include:

  • A coalition of textile and garment brands are banding together with global and local trade unions to support industry-wide collective bargaining between workers and their employers to establish legally enforceable requirements at the country level, taking living wages and working conditions out of industry competition. The initiative links to workers’ and their families’ rights to an adequate standard of living, food and nutrition, health, and housing, and it shows great promise in contributing to at least 11 SDGs in the process. 
  • A leading tech company is drawing a strong line in the sand when it comes to forced labor risks, requiring all of its suppliers to directly employ their workforce and support responsible recruitment practices that prevent conditions in which forced labor can thrive. The effort links to migrant workers’ rights to be free from violence and to have freedom of movement, making actual and potential contributions to at least 7 SDGs in the process. 
  • A group of food brands and retailers are playing an important role in a worker-driven social impact program that uses market enforcement mechanisms to drive real transformation in the lives of women farmworkers who too often face gender discrimination and sexual abuse in the fields. The program links to workers’ rights to equal protection and non-discrimination, and it’s already contributing to at least 11 SDGs in the process. 
  • An oil and gas company is working with trained community members to support early-stage dialogue with indigenous populations to prevent land-related human rights risks associated with an extractive exploration project. The approach links to communities’ rights to property, due process, self-determination, and a healthy environment. It has contributed, and promises to make future contributions, to at least 11 SDGs in the process. 

None of the case studies would claim to be perfect, but all demonstrate significant steps in the right direction. We invite all those working within and with companies to use these innovative examples as inspiration in developing and carrying out SDG strategies that are both practical and principled, and that put people back at the center of sustainable development. Please visit www.shiftproject.org/SDGs to learn more.

About Shift

Shift is the leading center of expertise on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Shift’s global team facilitates dialogue, builds capacity and develops new approaches with companies, government, civil society organizations and international institutions to bring about a world in which business gets done with respect for people’s fundamental welfare and dignity. Shift is a non-profit, mission-driven organization.

Shift was established following the 2011 unanimous endorsement of the Guiding Principles by the UN Human Rights Council, which marked the successful conclusion of the mandate of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Business and Human Rights, Professor John Ruggie. Shift’s founders were part of Professor Ruggie’s core advisory team that helped develop the Guiding Principles. Professor Ruggie is the Chair of Shift’s Board of Trustees.

Follow Shift at @shiftproject

www.shiftproject.org

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