Just how effective are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a collection of 17 inter-related social development goals set out by the United Nations in 2015– at improving human rights in business?
The question is one that is certainly occupying minds here at this year’s UN forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva. As Caroline Rees, President and co-founder of Shift, a leading centre of expertise on the UN’s Guiding Principles – told a packed seminar: “Embedded in the SDGs is the ‘people’ part as much as the ‘planetary’ part.”
While accepting that every company can have a positive contribution towards SDGs by tackling their own environmental footprint, she said businesses needed to be thinking as much about “people” risks.
“Tackling the risks related to human rights requires collaborative efforts. It is about transforming the way people behave and act. It is about reducing the risk to business, driving respect for human rights into your business.
“Companies need to identify the most severe negative impacts and risks to people associated within their business. How can companies, and those working with them, take a holistic approach to their SDG strategies that integrates respect for human rights?”
Benjamin Ware, Global Head of Responsible Sourcing at Nestlé, picked up on the point about focusing on people in relation to these issues. “It’s the physical supply chain, it’s the labour you need to target. You need to map workers.”
Earlier in the day at the Forum’s opening plenary Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International and an alumna of the University of Manchester, said companies must not be allowed to “cherry pick” what they do and don’t do with regards SDGs, especially given the growing global inequalities.
She said the culture of big bonuses and huge pay at the top of business contrasted with the continued struggle for ordinary people living on poverty wages. “Democratic rights are eroded by such levels of inequality.”
Business as much as government was at the centre of this situation, she added. “It is not just about governments, it is about business and how it influences public policy. Resistance always comes from the influence of certain industries over political leaders. Business and politics are entangled. Business leaders must challenge themselves if they are lobbying against women rights, unionism or environmental standards.”
She said the recent release of the Panama Papers served to only further highlight the huge problem.
“As they dodge tax businesses are taking opportunities to cheat as much as possible. Tax income doesn’t just benefit governments, it benefits all those who the taxes are spent on from schools and healthcare to roads. Tax dodging hurts everyone, but it hurts the poorest most.”
But amid the downbeat messages there were glimmers of hope. For instance Marcela Manubens, Global Vice President for Integrated Social Sustainability at Unilever, said the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act in the UK two years ago was a good example of successful collaboration between the state and business.