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Opinion

German businesses call for legal duty of care for human rights and the environment

9th December 2019

  • 42 [update August 2020: 65] companies have signed the joint statement calling for legislation which requires companies to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence 

  • Companies such as Hapag-Lloyd, Nestlé Germany, Ritter Sport, Tchibo and Vaude are among the signatories

Berlin,  Germany – Forty-two [65] German companies and a [update: two] working group[s] of investors have called for a mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence law in Germany in a joint statement released today. The group of supporters range from small and medium-sized enterprises, including start-ups and trading cooperatives, to large multinationals with multi-billion euro turnovers. 

The statement, coordinated by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, says: 

“Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights companies have a responsibility to respect human rights – including in their value chains. Some companies have already demonstrated steps on implementing this responsibility. Experience has shown, however, that voluntary commitments alone are not sufficient. There is a need for mandatory due diligence adequately implemented by all.  

Human rights and environmental due diligence legislation would help create both legal certainty and a level playing field. It would ensure everyone is held to the same standard and no company is able to evade its responsibilities without consequences or make profits at the expense of people and nature. This is what employees, customers, investors and the public expect from us as well.  

We welcome a due diligence law in Germany that paves the way for ambitious regulation at the European level.” 

The German Government has set a 2020 target for at least 50% of German companies with more than 500 employees to have introduced effective human rights protections. The current coalition Government has agreed to pass national legislation and push for EU-wide regulation to compel companies to respect human rights if voluntary implementation proves to be insufficient. 

Research published by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in November found that 18/20 of Germany’s largest companies had failed to sufficiently disclose how they manage their human rights risks. At the same time, German companies have been linked to human rights and environmental abuses worldwide including the Rana Plaza textile factory collapse in Bangladesh and the recent dam disaster in BrumadinhoBrazil.

Johannes Blankenbach, EU & Western Europe Researcher at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre said:  

Government-mandated human rights and environmental due diligence could go a long way to reduce harm by German companies on workers and communities around the world. It can also raise the floor of corporate behaviour and set a level playing field. These companies recognise this.  

Now is a crucial moment in the discussion around legislating to protect against corporate harm, both in Germany and at the EU level. This statement sends a clear message that German businesses from diverse sectors are on board.” 

Last week, the Finnish EU Presidency published its “Agenda for Action” that highlights the need for EU-wide regulation on human rights due diligenceCompanies, business associations and investors across Europe have expressed support for both national and regional laws on this issueOver 100 civil society organisations and trade unions recently called on the EU to develop effective human rights and environmental due diligence legislation, and in Germany, a broad civil society coalition demands a supply chain law. 

Legislation in Germany could build on similar laws already passed or under discussion in France, Finland, Netherlands, NorwayItaly and Switzerland. 

// ENDS 

Media Contact: 

Johannes Blankenbach, EU / Western Europe Researcher & Representative, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, [email protected] (German speaker, Berlin-based), +49 (0)151 459 299 22    

Joe Bardwell, Communications Manager, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, [email protected], +44 (0)7966636981, +44 (0)20 7636 7774   

Notes to Editors 

  1. According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, human rights due diligence "should include assessing actual and potential human rights impacts, integrating and acting upon the findings, tracking responses, and communicating how impacts are addressed". For more information on mandatory due diligence regulations see here.

  2. Tchibo said"Since 2006 Tchibo is in transformation into a socially and ecologically sustainable company. We are convinced that business must not be at the expense of people and the environment. To achieve this, we need a legal bottom line for corporate due diligence. Responsibility and sustainable management must no longer be an option, but the standard. We have to raise the bar in all sectors. In order to guarantee human rights and protect the environment globally, everyone must participate - not just few pioneers. We need a critical mass in the world of business to solve the pressing global issues of our times quicker and more profoundly."

  3. Vaude said in July: "In global value chains, sustainability is currently largely voluntary. This means that we have to accept that the products we use are manufactured under conditions in which people are exploited and environmental damage occurs. In addition, it places those companies that, in order to meet a higher level of corporate responsibility on a global scale, bear higher costs and effort at a competitive disadvantage. In order to ensure that a majority of companies recognize and assume holistic responsibility in their supply chains, we need legal regulation. These laws should be integrated into each country’s national legal frameworks to ensure enforceability."

  4. UPDATE: As of August 2020, 65 companies have signed onto the statement.