Published 3 months ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: GoodSam Foods is built on direct-trade relationships. | GoodSam Foods
On day one of this year’s UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, delegates
agreed that close engagement with all tiers of company supply chains will be
vital going forward.
Supply chain responsibility has been a consistent theme in corporate action on
The new wave of human rights due-diligence initiatives worldwide — ranging from
by the Japanese Government, modern slavery
in the US Senate; pending
in Australia; and, in the last stages of negotiation, for European Union
— are putting increased significance on supply chain issues at the 12th annual
UN Forum on Business and Human
taking place this week in Geneva, Switzerland.
So, it was apt that the first day began with discussions about forming
partnerships as “the answer” to creating resilient and responsible supply
chains. New research undertaken by the Center for Business and Human
at NYU Stern School of Business was presented that suggests that companies
cannot rely on indirect relationships with suppliers in the Global South, but
are recommended to adopt a “direct relationship model.”
Payal Jain, Head of Social Impact
at H&M, advocated that this is possible — explaining that for over 10 years,
the company has published lists and applied its code of conduct to Tier One and
now Tier Two suppliers and is already discussing with other companies how this
can be extended to Tier Three.
Join us for a transformational experience at SB Brand-Led Culture Change — May 8-10 in Minneapolis. This event brings together hundreds of brand leaders eager to delve into radical lifestyle shifts and sustainable consumer behavior change at scale. The trends driving cultural acceleration are already underway, and you can be at the forefront of this transformative movement.
Abrar Sayem, founder and
CEO of Bangladeshi apparel sourcing platform Merchant
Bay, asked the Forum to recognise that companies
do not complain about purchasing or other unfair practices from buyers, because
they fear losing business if they do.
Both speakers agreed that demands on manufacturers must be matched by
commitments from purchasing companies in the new partnerships formed.
“Don’t dump requirements; really listen — ensure it is a two- not a one-way
partnership,” Jain said. “Shared responsibility is giving a fair price, offering
tools, working on solutions and not in disengagement.”
How partnerships are structured are key to their success, it was argued.
Brazil Director of the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery,
suggested that there is a danger that workers could actually become more
vulnerable in due-diligence efforts — which can only be overcome by putting
trade unions at the heart of grievance mechanisms. She called on companies to
engage and listen to survivors of modern
Speakers agreed there needs to be an honest broker in the partnership who can
bring people together and hold partners to account. Dijana M.
Zupanc, Deputy Human
Rights Ombudsman for Slovenia, suggested that the convening role of
Governments is an important part of achieving this. All speakers agreed that
partnerships need to be inclusive, multi-stakeholder and long term.
Imbalances in relationships were highlighted by Steve Bell, founder of the
Interfaith Centre, who commented: “It’s not shared responsibility which is
needed, but shared power.”
Other participants pointed to the need for cost-sharing around compliance,
certification and remediation — with companies recognising that structural
changes in their business models are key to addressing the causes of
Successful examples of partnerships cited in the debate that can act a model for
others included the clothing and textile agreement brokered by the Social and
Economic Council of the
the Accord on Fire and Building
in Bangladesh, and the Roadmap to Zero
Programme for hazardous chemicals.
Dan Rees, Director of Better Work at the
International Labor Organisation (ILO), and research author Sanchita
Saxena agreed that the
new legislation will make all the difference.
“The new legislation means companies will be made accountable,” Saxena asserted.
“Good partnerships will make good business sense. Both purchasers and suppliers
have to agree their behaviors will not negatively impact human rights.”
“A sea-change is underway, with the move from soft to hard law on human rights
due diligence,” Rees told the Forum. “Existing partnerships today are islands of
good practice. They will now get driven through supply chains for the mass of
Other highlights of Day One of the Forum included:
An appeal from High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker
Türk calling on
companies to record
on “concrete actions” to advance human rights, as part of the 75th
anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human
ILO Deputy Director-General Celeste
participants to use the organisation’s new Binding Guidance against Violence
and Harassment in the workplace.
Amplifying victims’ voices is an important aspect of the Forum, but clearly
difficult at an international event with thousands in attendance. Today saw
an attempt to help overcome this difficulty with a series of film showings
highlighting local communities affected by dam construction from Brazil
Meanwhile, nine years after it was initiated, Sandra
Epal-Ratjen from the
International Commission of Jurists said big differences on scope,
liability and jurisdiction remain on the proposed Binding Treaty on
Business and Human
However, she said the atmosphere was now optimistic and that “real
negotiations have now begun.”
Novel wording of the day came in workshop on “environmental racism.” Quite
simply, this discussed the fact that racially subordinated groups are more
subject to environmental harms and to the impact of climate change. Not a
new concept for Indigenous peoples’ groups, but this is perhaps an
interesting shift in terminology which may attract new interest to the
Other issues were identified today which will continue throughout the week,
including how intellectual property must range from the new risks created by
artificial intelligence to the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples; how
‘Just Transition’ identifies the need to integrate environmental risk into
human rights due
and how both conflict in the world and regression in work towards the UN
Sustainable Development Goals bring even more urgency to this year’s
Published Nov 27, 2023 5pm EST / 2pm PST / 10pm GMT / 11pm CET
Richard Howitt is a strategic adviser on Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Business and Human Rights. He is also a Board member, lecturer at Audencia Business School and host of the Frank Bold ‘Frankly Speaking’ responsible business podcast. Richard was Member of the European Parliament responsible for the EU’s first rules on corporate sustainability reporting and subsequently Chief Executive Officer of the International Integrated Reporting Council.