By Liping Mian, Human Rights Advocate
Coming from a human rights and anthropology background and having worked with different non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for almost ten years, I naturally became interested in the subject of while studying at Sciences Po Paris in 2013.
Businesses in general have a more mature management system and more sustainable resources, which NGOs do not always have. Plus, a focus on economic profits often drives businesses to expand their markets across the entire country or the entire world. Thus, when businesses decide to embrace human rights, there is a huge potential to make a significant impact.
However, businesses are still exploring why they should care about human rights, what they could contribute positively to human rights and how they could act on it. After one year of working with a multinational company on corporate social responsibility, I propose that the real opportunity of human rights, for business, is to develop the sustainability of people.
Companies should integrate human rights as part of the business rather than isolate the issue just because they should “do good.” Human rights does not only mean cost and risk, but also benefit and opportunity. Taking care of human rights could ensure that companies have sustainable employees to run the business, sustainable customers to pay for their products, and sustainable local communities to maintain the business. Innovative ways of respecting human rights could also give them a competitive advantage over their peers.
Ensure Sustainable Employees
Besides following national labor laws and the conventions of the International Labor Organization, many companies are taking initiative to promote a safe, diverse and friendly workplace for their employees. For example, when I was engaging with the Global Fund to Fight against AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis (GF) in 2010, a private sector representative on the board shared that his company in South Africa provides free AIDS treatment to their employees. In a country where the rate of HIV infection among the general population is more than 60%, providing AIDS treatment to its employees is crucial in achieving a sustainable labor force within the company.
Building Sustainable Customers
In order to build sustainable customers, it is important for businesses to ensure that their products are based on current regulations with respect to quality and quantity, so that their customers come to no harm while using them. But businesses can go further, to match their actions to their own principles and their customers’ values. For example, several of the world’s top 500 companies are strong supporters of gay rights, giving them access to a loyal and engaged customer base.
Create Sustainable Communities
Increasingly, companies care about creating sustainable local communities in the areas in which they operate. Traditional strategies to improve living conditions include charitable contributions to local communities, volunteerism among their employees, and establishment of foundations to support nonprofit projects. But often it is difficult to sustain these efforts. In recent years, with the emergence of public private partnerships (PPP) and co-creation, business have started to work together with local authorities, NGOs and local communities to implement innovative models – such as community investment funds, income generation activities and promotion of sustainable technologies among local households.
Businesses should further safeguard their position and reputation by taking positive actions to influence their value chains. The November 2012 fire in Bangladesh, for example, led people to yet again focus on multinational companies and hold them accountable for their supply chain behaviors.
Countries and regions require in their legislation that multinational companies control their value chains, through means such as:
- Including human rights-related clauses in agreements with their suppliers, sub-contractors and partners
- Auditing their value chains on a regular basis
- Providing trainings and mentorship to their value chain on respecting human rights
This article is a part of MSLGROUP’s sustainability report A Chance for Change: The Tipping Point for Sustainable Business.
Liping is dedicated to driving change, in her years as a human rights advocate and at her current role in a multinational company.