Sustainability 2011/12

Supply Chain

Christine Bader

Nonresident Senior Fellow
The Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University

Christine Bader

Think of your Top 10 list of the biggest problems the world faces today. Each of us would have different issues and priorities. But I would venture a guess that we would all include variations on the economy and income inequality; climate change and pollution; health and health care; and perhaps something to do with civil rights, such as discrimination on the basis of race or sexual orientation.

We can come up with examples of how companies are addressing every one of the problems we identified – and also exacerbating them. And I’ll bet we could come up with examples of how the same company is doing both at the same time.

Economic development, led by the private sector, has lifted millions if not billions of people out of poverty. Business has delivered critical goods and services around the world, positively impacting human rights. But it’s also clear that companies can negatively impact human rights: from stifling freedom of expression by squelching dissent and engaging in censorship; to limiting freedom of mobility by holding workers’ identity papers; to the whole range of labor abuses.

As a global society, we need to focus on how we can eradicate the negative impacts and enhance the positive ones. We can’t tolerate people getting hurt in the normal course of business. And – bonus – there’s a bottom line imperative. Better treatment of workers leads to higher productivity and lower employee turnover. I’m not just talking about providing flextime and daycare, but allowing bathroom breaks and not beating people. It’s hard to believe that we need to fight for this in the 21st century, but sadly it’s true.

This is not about distracting companies from their core business, as critics like to argue. It’s about better aligning the needs of business with the needs of society. The modern international human rights framework, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was created in 1948 by states for states, because governments at that time were all-powerful, and companies were not as large as they are today. While it can be awkward to graft this human rights framework onto business, it provides an excellent starting point.

Taken at its most basic level, companies should not hurt people. Most companies have figured that one out. What companies need to be doing more of is conducting due diligence, including in their supply chains. Investors are increasingly recognizing that “ESG” – environmental, social and governance – problems indicate broader management problems.

Apart from what companies themselves can and must do, we need nongovernmental organizations to collaborate with business. Advocacy is important, but companies can’t and shouldn’t be expected to be human rights and development experts. NGOs can play a critical role in representing the interests of the communities that companies are affecting.

And while the influence of big business in government is rightly scrutinized, companies should be consulted in the drafting of regulations. Companies often have more staff and experience on the ground than governments, and can share what seems feasible and what might actually solve the problems that legislation is meant to address.

The wonderful thing about the explosion of corporate responsibility over the last 20 years is that more and more companies are engaged in conversations about their role in society. The downside, however, is that the whole notion of corporate responsibility has gotten diluted with philanthropy, and with recycling programs, and with sending employees out in matching T-shirts to go paint a wall. These things are all great, but what I’m interested in, and what we all should be concerned about, is the impact a company’s core business has on human beings.

We need to learn from what we have already accomplished so we’re not reinventing the wheel, and we must better align what we’re already doing across companies and industries. I visited a factory in Thailand where, to comply with safety codes from various customers, the manager had three fire extinguishers at different heights on the wall, and three different colored strips of tape pointing toward the exits. What a waste of time and resources.

Despite all that needs to be done, I’m optimistic about improving business practices around the world. Consumers are waking up to where their stuff comes from; investors and regulators are demanding that companies take responsibility for their supply chains; the next generation of business leaders doesn’t want to work for the next Enron, Lehman or Madoff. Even in developing countries, there is a growing recognition of the business imperative to respect human rights.

To hear more from Christine Bader, view her TEDx talk “Manifesto for the Corporate Idealist”