Published on 12 February 2015
How human rights can be an integral part of business success
The idea that human rights should form an essential platform for company strategies may seem like an unlikely concept, particularly at a time when companies are facing a frightening mixture of political upheaval, disruptive technology and the steady march of regulation that is very hard to navigate. Surely human rights must be way down on the agenda?
Yet later this month, myself and a group of highly qualified panellists will seek to shine a light on exactly this issue – in front of several hundred delegates from around the world at the Global Law Summit.
Coinciding with the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta, there are those of us who strongly believe that now more than ever, at a time of global turmoil in which the rule of law remains an embattled concept, it is important to highlight the central role that businesses can play as global corporate citizens.
Of course, the concerns that compelled the Barons and wealthy landowners to rebel against King John are very different to those that motivate society today. Naturally, many of the clauses on feudal rights and customs sound alien to modern ears. Yet in many ways this document is as relevant as ever, as a foundational expression of the Rule of Law. Particular clauses Magna Carta established have stood the test of time: no free man can be imprisoned or stripped of his property without due process and no one will be delayed or denied “right or justice”. These values, which I hold dear, formed the basis for the development of human rights.
Analysis done in the US found that the average life expectancy of an S&P 500 company had fallen from 61 years in 1958 to a mere 18 years by 2011. This means that only the companies that innovate and keep challenging themselves can sustain competitive advantage and survive long enough to leave a legacy.
So where does human rights fit into this? Through my work with individuals and companies over the last 35 years, I can see that support for and belief in, the respect and protection for human rights has become a growing priority and feature of business strategies. Those that continue to turn a blind eye to poor working conditions for employees, low pay or worse, do so at their peril.
Some companies are already leading the way with inspiring campaigns and employee engagement programs. In fact, the scope and influence of human rights is continually evolving. Over the past few years, international measures like Professor John Ruggie’s 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights have gained widespread political and commercial acceptance. As a result, the argument that human rights are the concern of governments alone is no longer tenable. Companies, regardless of their size, can behave in a way that not only gives shareholders strong returns, but also guarantees the long term success of their businesses and satisfies consumers and employees alike.
And this is not just about plain economics. Companies that have a clear corporate identity and stand for something are the ones that mark themselves out from the crowd. It is these companies that investors and other stakeholders will seek to support when times get challenging. It is these companies that will be around long enough to leave their mark.
And equally this is not just about the difficult times. A survey from Deloitte carried out in 2013 found that nearly 40% of people born in this millennium believed that bettering society should be the primary purpose of companies. This means that ignoring a company’s wider impact on society does so at the peril of alienating this future generation of consumers. This is no longer just a nice to have. This generation demands a different kind of business – one that believes in more than just profits.
But while the argument to support the human rights ethos is growing, there is still a lot to be done to achieve the effective transition from theory to practice. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted in 2011, produced a set of voluntary principles placing the onus on business to ensure they integrate human rights throughout their operations. Professor Ruggie, the creator of the Principles, will be joining me on the panel later this month which will discuss effective implementation and to initiate debate on the catalyst role that businesses can play in relation to human rights.
Now is the time for us to demonstrate how and why human rights should be an integral part of business. I very much hope that our panel will demonstrate that business and human rights truly belong together.