This short framework for analysis and action offers a straightforward way for any company to work out how it should and can contribute to sustainable development.
May 2017 | Caroline Rees
Also see this Viewpoint as a PDF.
What's the current problem with the way some organizations are talking about business contributions to sustainable development - and what's a better path forward?
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are setting a new and increasingly accepted basis for companies to stake out a position on how they are responsible and sustainable.
Yet with 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 related targets, there is a risk that companies simply repackage what they already do in the wrapping of the SDGs, or focus on certain SDGs based on the ease, rather than the impact, of those choices. This is not to suggest that businesses should address all goals. Rather, we believe they need a principled process, that reflects international standards, to identify the SDGs through which they can maximize their contribution.
Companies and states that view business respect for human rights in a compliance/risk/do no harm box will miss its relevance and power to achieve resoundingly positive outcomes.
Human rights are embedded throughout the SDGs. Yet many organizations that are telling business how to think about this – and many leaders in business itself – are failing to understand the place of respect for human rights in this broader framework.
Respect for human rights tends to be seen as something necessary but basic, from which leading companies have already moved on to more innovative, leadership-oriented, collaborative initiatives. (This vastly overestimates progress on human rights within the business community.) Moreover, because respect for human rights is an expectation of all companies, it is often seen as merely a matter of compliance and risk management, and distinct from initiatives that are characterized as transformative.
These pervasive assumptions fail to understand:
In fact, when companies address negative impacts on human rights they can achieve resoundingly positive outcomes. Companies and states that view business respect for human rights in a compliance/risk/do no harm box will therefore miss its relevance and power as part of an SDG strategy.
Instead, companies should see it in a similar way to their environmental contributions to the SDGs, which typically have two parts:
This logic works equally well for the “people part” of the SDGs:
Implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – the global standard in this field – is the basis for addressing part (a). It must also inform any initiatives a company undertakes for part (b) – in relation to both planet and people – so they too are carried out with respect for human rights.
By adopting the same two-part approach to how they address the “people part” of sustainable development as they do to addressing the “planet part,” companies now have a holistic vision for how they can develop strategies to support the SDGs, which embeds the right understanding of the role and the power of respect for human rights. This view is illustrated in the graphic to the right.
This framework offers a straightforward way for any company to work out how it should and can contribute to the SDGs:
* The International Labour Organization estimates that in just 40 countries representing 85 percent of world gross domestic product there are 453 million formal sector jobs related to global supply chains. Realizing the rights of these workers would constitute a transformative change. This is relevant not only to SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth; the opportunities unlocked for people when they have decent jobs with living wages include a route out of poverty (SDG1) with improved access to food (SDG 2), to health (SDG 3), to education (SDG 4), and to equality of opportunity (SDGs 5 and 10).
President and Co-Founder
As Shift's President, Caroline leads our strategic development and drives our thought leadership work on key challenges and opportunities in advancing corporate respect for business and human rights.