Should business defend environmental and human rights campaigners?

There are a few questions in the world of responsible business which always get attention.

These are the thorny, difficult, riddled-with-potential-conflict-of-interest-and-controversy questions.

One of them is: “How should companies responsibly engage and persuade Governments to think longer term in a sustainable way?”

Another is this, the title of this post: “Should business defend environmental and human rights campaigners?”

There’s a third question too, which is just as important: “How far should companies go in doing this?”

Thinking about the last one here, that’s got to be on a case by case basis.

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The report that led to a lawsuit

It means going beyond a press release, website statement, tweet or PR-oriented approach.

Given headlines like this in the news, more and more each day: China puts human rights activists on trial, business is being asked, and will be asked more often, to help make a positive contribution.

Like it or not, it’s happening.

On the question that’s the title of this post naturally I would argue the answer is yes.

If the company you work for wants to achieve human rights and environmental objectives that is.

If your firm is made up of sociopathic nihilists, then the answer would be no, but 99.9% companies are not.

Kate Larsen, who has worked in large companies in ethical sourcing and human rights for years, and now runs Business for the Unseen, puts it this way: “Given the speed campaigns can run at in social media and increased expectation that business support human rights in their scope of influence, business leaders may need to get used to more actively using their voice against unjust arrest of individuals legally making efforts to support the worker and other human rights the business says it strives to realise in its operations and supply chain.”

Well put, Kate. And this isn’t all that new. Companies have done this in countries such as Cambodia, South Africa and China for quite a few years. Let’s remember it was partly business objecting to apartheid in South Africa that led to the end of it as a policy.

So let’s talk about what this looks like in practice.

Last week, we at Innovation Forum we published this piece which shows how a company is trying to help a campaigner:

Here’s the short version: The case of an activist being supported by a Finnish company testifying against a former supplier in Thailand shows how the progressive business landscape is changing

As a follow up, I asked Lea Rankinen, senior vice president, sustainability and CSR at S Group*, the company taking the action, to offer a little more insight as to why they have done this. The short Q&A is below.

The commendable approach at S Group of course is not the only way to support social and environmental activists, there are many others, which I will discuss in a follow up post.

Meanwhile, here’s Lea on why S Group decided to stand up for the rights of human rights campaigner Andy Hall.

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Lea Rankinen

Your company has taken a leading stance on defending a human rights activist, Andy Hall, in Thailand, over a report he wrote about a former supplier. Why have you done this? 

“We did value that report. We have always adhered to strict ethical principles in our purchasing, but following the 2013 Finnwatch report, we took immediate action with our suppliers in Thailand to further advance the implementation of our responsibility policies in supply chains.

We in S Group feel that the work of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) is of great importance in developing working conditions and human rights in Thailand and others countries as well.

To achieve transparency in supply chains we also need open and thorough surveys and dialogue. Such work should never be punished.

It is in the interest of companies, too, to have a functioning civil society.

CSOs produce information which is also highly relevant to us adhering to strict ethical guidelines in our global supply chains.

BSCI, the sustainable business initiative of European retailers, importers and brands, has issued a statement in support of Andy Hall and has asked Natural Fruit Co. and its subsidiaries to drop the charges against Mr. Hall.

S Group’s view towards the case is just as clear and unequivocal.

Andy Hall asked us to give a testimony and as a responsible company we decided to testify, because S Group is part of the value chain of this case.”

What do you expect as outcomes from this work, even if the case doesn’t go as you’d like? i.e. are you looking to inspire other companies to do similar work?

“I think it was important that we were there to tell our actions and corporate responsibility principles we follow to monitor working conditions and human rights in global supply chains.

I do hope that the case is going to end soon as it should have been stopped in a first place.

I think this case is actually very big change from respecting human rights to promote human rights.

I hope this will be a good example and speed up companies to improve working conditions and human rights and work together with their suppliers and CSO’s.

No matter what the result is, I hope this will be an example to other companies too to stand up in similar situations. We will continue the open dialogue and collaboration with CSO’s in the future too.

One very concrete outcome has been that we now on a regular basis send out comprehensive surveys to our suppliers, to check how they implement and monitor our corporate responsibility principles in their supply chains with sub-suppliers. Also, corporate social responsibility issues regarding the purchasing of raw materials are also now clarified in our purchasing contracts.”

How hard was it to convince a senior procurement colleague to testify in the trial? Tell us about the conversations you had internally.

“This has been a long-standing case that began back in 2013. From the beginning we have made very open communication. All the actions have been planned in close cooperation between corporate responsibility and purchasing since the beginning.

In Autumn 2013 we visited Thailand to discuss the findings and next steps with all factories mentioned in the report and other stakeholders.

So my colleague, senior vice president for sourcing, Jari Simolin, understood his role and the importance of human rights from the beginning. To testify in the trial was anyway an issue which we also discussed at executive level.

We had an internal debate just with the senior executives and found that this is also a good learning case for us, to help us show how serious we are about sustainable procurement.”

So what’s been the response so far? From media, NGOs, employees…

“The response has been very positive. We have got relatively good media visibility and support from stakeholders. Internally it’s been a case which has been raising the awareness of human right issues. Employees have been following the news and are discussing it positively.”

You’ve mentioned Turkey as a current and future area of similar human rights risk. What do you see as the challenges there, and potential solutions?

“The human rights situation in Turkey is now very challenging in general. There are over 2 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey and estimated that 400 000 of them are working illegally. This is similar to Thailand where there are more than three million migrant workers. So the challenge is to find malpractices and solutions related to working without permits, possible discriminatory treatment, payments under the legal minimum wage and excessive working hours.”

My thanks to Lea for the frank responses and congratulations to S Group for their leadership. Not every company would do this, but more should.

I’ll look at other tactics companies can employ in standing up for human rights and environmental campaigners in another post.

The business case is ever-clearer. If you want to live your values, campaigners can help.

How you can help them when undue pressure is put upon them is something I’ll offer some further thoughts about soon on this blog.

* Disclosure: Innovation Forum has worked with S Group a few times in the past, providing trend and risk briefings and workshops on sustainability issues and management.

Upcoming events from Innovation Forum, where you can debate the above issues in person: