Every year around this time the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights take place. This year it has been online. One of the topics dominating the Forum (and the field of business and human rights) this year is the idea that companies should be legally required to conduct a human rights due diligence (HRDD). Although this is not a new idea it has gained traction in the last few months. Yet the discussion has moved beyond whether there should be mandatory human rights due diligence. In fact, the EU has been working on its own legislation and France, and other countries, have their own versions. This week in the Forum, there was a fascinating discussion on what the elements are that should be included in such legislation.
But going back to why it should be mandatory – for me, a compelling reason to make HRDD compulsory is the results of the 2020 Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB) which was published on Tuesday and introduced in one of the sessions in the Forum this week.
First, let me just explain – the EIRIS Foundation has a close link to CHRB. For the past three years, we have been the ones who coordinate the research behind it – we organise the research, as well as training researchers, developing a database, deep diving into the methodology, understanding different sectors, deciding which allegations meet CHRB’s threshold, debating whether a certain word can be taken as a commitment (and we are pretty good now in discerning real progress from nicely worded empty promises) and whether a company’s statement is sufficient to award a point. It is hard to put into words the level of dedication that goes into researching the 230 companies that comprise the benchmark. It takes a lot of careful project management, patience and attention to detail combined with support from our partners Ecodes, Sitawi and the other researchers who work on this project. So back to the CHRB results. The overall results are that far too many companies are lagging behind. For example, ‘two thirds of the automotive companies scored 0 across all human rights due diligence indicators’. In other sectors, ‘more than a third of companies failed to improve on their 2019 results’, and many of the lowest scorers from that year are still refusing to budge. Starbucks, Ross Stores and Phillips 66 headline a group of 24 companies that scored below 10% on the full benchmark methodology in 2019 and did not improve on any of the CHRB core UNGP indicators in 2020.
It is not to say that there has not been progress – there are some companies who improved quite significantly and since we have been doing this research for the last three years, it is really good to see that CHRB has been able to push companies towards the pathway to HRDD. What I like about the methodology is that it is designed to bring about change. So even if a company is only choosing to do things in order to get another point on the Benchmark, it is still likely to benefit its workers and other stakeholders.
I am quite sure that for the leaders such as Adidas, ENI and Unilever, their ability to progress and develop systems that promote respect for human rights will help them comply with a mandatory HRDD quite easily. And for those who are lagging way behind, then the methodology which we were involved in developing can help companies start to implement what will hopefully become a legal obligation.