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Opinion

18 Mar 2021

Author:
Caroline Rees, President and Co-Founder, Shift

One goal, multiple narratives and the chance to harness their collective power to Build Back Better

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The COVID pandemic has given rise to worldwide calls to ‘Build Back Better’. But the ‘better’ takes a far wider point of reference than COVID alone. It speaks to decades of externalization of business risks and costs onto people and the planet in service of profit maximization. The pandemic has served to both exacerbate and highlight the deeply unjust and unsustainable inequalities that existing systems cause.

The business and human rights movement holds some key answers to how we achieve the systems change that is urgently needed. Yet such is the range of social and economic forces at play it cannot deliver the complete solution alone.

Rather, this moment demands that we reach out past our own constituency and narrative. It calls upon us to connect with other influential actors who enter this discussion of ‘building back better’ from very different starting points, using different languages and often different assumptions, yet with much the same vision. Each of these approaches carries its own power for change – we must harness them together to reach our shared goal of a just recovery:

The development narrative of sustainability holds tremendous global reach that resonates with individuals across our societies who yearn for a more just world. Yet for many, ‘sustainability’ remains largely or solely about the environment. We need to renew understandings of the integral relationship between planet and people; between climate change and inequality. By better connecting with this narrative, we can consolidate, amplify and accelerate progress towards a just recovery that advances the Sustainable Development Goals.

The political narrative of inequality is rapidly gaining traction both within governments and across civil society, from grassroots groups to companies and boardrooms. Yet it is a narrative that too often reduces the role of companies to getting essential services or products to poor and marginalized communities and workers. This overlooks the transformation to be achieved from changing the business practices – found across all sectors – that externalize costs and risks onto these communities and workers in the first place.

We need to engage with the economic narrative of stakeholder capitalism. This is shaping commitments and proposals in business schools, C-suites and investor gatherings. Yet it is stymied by the overwhelming proposition that companies should now embrace ‘all stakeholders’ – all employees, suppliers, customers, communities. And so, it faces pushback from those pointing to the impossibility of such a basis for decision-making. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights point the way forward: attention should be laser-focused on those who are most at risk of harm.

With investors now calling for more rigor in the ‘social’ analysis of companies’ environmental, social and governance performance, there is huge opportunity in connecting with the investment narrative of ‘ESG’. The funds, ranking and ratings now assuming the ESG mantel with growing speed and alacrity are shaping markets. Yet for as long as they rely on the poor indicators and metrics of social performance, they risk distorting those markets rather than shaping them for a better world. Ultimately the ‘S’ is about impacts on people, and we now know enough to do a better job of measuring this critical aspect of company performance.

Along with ‘ESG’ analysis, the multi-capitals approach is starting to determine what companies measure and disclose, presenting a valuable opening to connect better with the accounting narrative of human and social capital. Unfortunately, human capital is still approached by most companies and accountants through the lens of what value companies can extract from a workforce, and social capital as what value can be derived from networks and relationships (typically with the influential). Yet, the original vision saw multi-capital accounting as much richer, embedding a far more reciprocal vision of the role of business in society, that goes beyond a straight quid pro quo exchange and values people’s dignity in its own right.

Each of these narratives has compelling strengths and its own influence on evolving policies and standards. Each holds part of the answer to ‘building back better’. As does our own. But business and human rights is, itself, a relative late-comer to the conversation on responsible business conduct. And it will be eternally limited in its impact if it remains the purview of a constituency that – while growing – is relatively small in size and influence.

We must demonstrate the very particular and transformative value that business and human rights brings to the mix:

  • A clear standard of conduct for what business can be expected to do. One that does not need to be relitigated at every turn, and which lifts us out of the amorphous category of “social” performance or “social” sustainability, which dehumanizes the issues and diverts us from the simple fact that this concerns the treatment of actual people.
  • A “lens of vulnerability” to better understand which people – or ‘stakeholders’ – should be the primary focus of business, alongside shareholders: those enduring continuing and compounding inequalities and yet whose welfare determines whether we can sustain the human capital and social capital on which our societies’ stability and companies’ future success depends.
  • The evidence of the transformative and positive outcomes that can result when businesses take serious measures to reduce risks to people in their operations and value chains. This is the principal way for most companies to contribute to the human dimensions of the SDGs, and can be critical also to achieving their environmental targets as well.

The imperative to build back better after COVID will only succeed if experts from every constituency put their shoulder to the wheel. If we allow our distinct narratives, disciplines and efforts to proceed in isolation, we will collide, dilute and even delay the change we seek. If we join our insights, resources and efforts together we can deliver the world we need.