The top six read articles 2016

2016 has been an exciting and challenging year for all of us. If there was one adjective that could describe it, I’d have voted for “uncertain”.

 

The world has lived in stormy times. We’ve seen the Western political establishments being shaken up with the rise of populism. Worldwide inequality levels were steadily increasing and many blame globalisation as its cause.

 

Despite the political turbulence business remained true to its promise and the world has seen ratification of the Paris Agreement.

 

Ranging from blockchain and modern slavery to food security and responsible tax, we’ve compiled a list of our top six read articles in 2016. We hope it will help our corporate sustainability community to navigate through uncertainty while preparing for 2017.

 

GLOBAL GOALS – TELL EVERYONE: CUSTOMERS, SUPPLIERS, COLLEAGUES, FRIENDS AND FAMILY!

“The Global Goals represent probably the biggest set of BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) that the world has seen before”, argues Joe Franses of Coca-Cola European Partners. He shares his key take aways on how to break this down and run a successful Global Goals' workshop.

 

COULD THE BLOCKCHAIN REVOLUTIONISE SUSTAINABILITY?

The Internet is missing one thing and the blockchain has it - trust. Jessi Baker, co-founder of Provenance, describes how a new technology called a blockchain might change how we trust companies,  information, and how it empower us as smarter citizens.

 

CAN TECHNOLOGY HELP US TO FEED THE WORLD?

In the next 50 years as diets become richer, experts estimate that to feed a population of 9bn people, more food should be produced than has been during the past 10,000 years in total. Vincent Doumeizel of Lloyd's Register explores how to work together to produce safe and sustainable food.

 

ARE WE ENTERING THE RESPONSIBLE TAX ERA?

Corporate tax avoidance has been a primary ethical concern for the British public since 2013, and businesses must increase transparency to regain public trust. Is it an ethics issue or a result of legal loopholes? Michael Solomon of Responsible 100 asks how far are we from a responsible tax society?

 

WHAT EU REFERENDUM COULD MEAN TO THE UK ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY?  

What would Brexit mean for the UK's environmental policy? In this exclusive blog, David Baldock, executive director at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, argues that the EU has made progress on environmental issues, and outlines the two main scenarios if the UK should vote to leave the EU. 

 

MODERN SLAVERY AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BUSINESS

Forced labour and child exploitation have been guilty secrets lurking in international supply chains for centuries. With the voice of business carrying greater weight than that of conscience, business has a key role to play in addressing modern slavery, says Aidan McQuade of AntiSlavery International.

 

Photograph: Flickr/ victoriacarlson.

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Benet Northcote: 'We can’t eradicate slavery without appreciation of human rights'

The John Lewis Partnership’s Director for Corporate Responsibility, Benet Northcote discusses the human rights agenda and what the UK Modern Slavery Act means for business.

 

What the Modern Slavery Act means for the John Lewis Partnership – is it a risk or an opportunity for business?

It’s about human rights, it’s non-negotiable. This is simply about the way we should be behaving as actors in civil society. It shouldn’t be classified as a risk or an opportunity.

 

Do you think the Modern Slavery Act somehow changed John Lewis Partnership’s approach in this space?

We’ve always taken these issues seriously. I think there is no question however, that the Act has sharpened focus on the issue of modern slavery and human rights. It raised awareness of the issue and challenged all large businesses to take action.

 

What do you see as the biggest challenges in implementing the Act and what are the challenges of the broader slavery work?

The way the Act is framed is very simple – complying with the basic elements of the Act isn’t that challenging. What’s more challenging is complying with the spirit of the Act. And that does require a broader understanding of the underlying causes and risks around modern slavery. That’s why we’ve been very clear to link our modern slavery response to our business strategy on human rights. If society is to successfully eradicate slavery, one can’t pretend that targeting that as a single issue is going to remove the systemic causes.

 

Incorporating modern slavery – which is one of the most severe breaches of human rights – as part of a broader strategy on respecting people’s human rights throughout global supply chains will unlock and address instances of labour abuses.

 

What does implementation of the act look like?

There isn’t one answer to this. All businesses have to understand where the greatest risks are in their operations and supply chains and where they can have the most influence and can make the most difference. It’s important to go above and beyond the basic audit or compliance in the areas where we can have a particular impact. Also no one business can address this alone: collaboration is essential.

 

We have engaged NGOs and experts in developing our human rights strategy and in delivering the projects that we are running. Waitrose is partnering with the Wilberforce Institute on assessing the risks in fresh produce. John Lewis is running a model factory programme in the UK. It was launched at the Fast Forward employment practices workshop in January with ten bedroom, upholstery and fitted kitchen suppliers taking part. We have engaged a specialist assessor to undertake the forensic employment practices and HR systems assessment at each site and each factory are testing a mechanism for workers to confidentially share thoughts, feelings and views about the employer and the place they work. However, for all businesses it’s about understanding their point of influence, trying to drive ambitious improvements and sharing learnings and being honest about what works and what doesn’t.

 

Who is responsible for anti-slavery work at the John Lewis Partnership? Where does it sit in the organisation?

We have a formal governance structure and process. Ultimate responsibility sits with the Partnership Board and is delegated through the management board to teams within our trading divisions.  The formal delegation and senior accountability is important in a retail business to ensure that the activity is embedded in how we operate.  For example when you’re dealing with suppliers, it has to be managed by supplier relations and merchandising teams. They are the ones who understand the technical specifications, such as quality of products as well as buying goods and services. They are also the ones who understand what the solutions could be.

 

Some of the biggest scandals tend to be connected to human right violations. In the era of ever growing corporate transparency, what’s the best way to handle the labour crisis?

The starting point has to be understanding the situation, what has happened and focusing on helping the people impacted by the labour abuse. It’s not always clear what the immediate answers are, but working with the supplier to rectify the situation and drive improvements has to be the objective.

 

You have to have a robust approach on how you tackle modern slavery and you shouldn’t be afraid of understanding what the issues are and working to help those victims of modern slavery as well as other companies further down the supply chain. Simply walking away isn’t the answer. Working with the police, NGOs and any other actors involved to try to find the best solution for the individuals is the way forward.

 

What is the role of digital and technology in addressing slavery?

Technology is going to drive the level of supply chain transparency that we haven’t seen before. The potential for our ID tagging or other technologies that are harder to get your head around – these are clearly the technologies that are going to make a difference to the way supply chains operate going forward.

 

Will technology on its own wipe out crime? I don’t think so. I think at the end of the day a criminal will always find a way of distorting the law.

 

How to get started? What would you advise to someone starting the journey?

Firstly, putting the effort in to map out your supply chain early is tremendously important. Secondly, it’s key to understand what it is that you do in the sector best. Identifying the point of influence, areas where you’ve got the most impact is the next stage. Then you can dig down and understand the problems in those areas and put in place programs to explore and address those challenges.

 

I don’t think we can eradicate modern slavery without a deep appreciation of human rights.

 

Benet Northcote is Director for Corporate Responsibility at The John Lewis Partnership. 

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What could be: new roles for business in confronting and eradicating slavery

There is a quote from an old Trevor Howard film, The Golden Salamander, that stuck in my mind when I saw it one rainy Sunday afternoon many years ago: “Not by ignoring evil does one overcome it, but by going to meet it.”

 

Forced labour and child exploitation have been evil features of international supply chains for centuries. They have been too easily ignored because they occur in some of the more obscure corners of the world – the fields and forests of Africa for example, or the slums and anonymous industrial estates of Asia. 

 

In the past, as diligent journalists and non-governmental organisations exposed some of these abuses, it has tended to be businesses that have been most roundly criticised and condemned for tolerating such cruelties within their supply chains. 

 

Slowly this has begun to change, beginning with the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These recognise that businesses have a responsibility to respect the rights of workers, and that it is governments which have the duty to protect those rights. Plainly it is difficult for businesses to respect workers’ rights if they are operating supply chains in countries in which the governments, as a result of lack of capacity, disinterest, or corruption, are failing to protect workers’ human and employment rights. 

 

While many business executives will be profoundly distressed by the thought of slavery or child labour abuses in their supply chains, many others may not be particularly troubled by the human rights risks that governmental failures pose. Some may even be privately delighted at the cost savings that can emerge from a disdain for the basic rights of human beings at work. Indeed some countries and businesses have based their competitive advantages on the cost savings that forced and child labour bring.

 

A number of recent laws offer a distant prospect of ending any complacency or cynicism about the enslavement of vulnerable workers in supply chains. Perhaps the most significant is that signed into law by President Obama in 2016: the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act (TFTEA). This introduces new powers for public officials to exclude from the United States slavery tainted goods. The possibility of being denied access to as lucrative a market as the USA must give pause to those who have hitherto been glibly enriching themselves through the enslavement of others.

 

While much less world-leading, the transparency in supply chain clause (TISC) of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 provides something of an unappreciated opportunity for businesses. This clause requires businesses with a turnover of more than £36 million trading in the UK to report on what they are doing to ensure the elimination of slavery from their supply chains. 

 

If they chose, businesses can use the necessity of their reporting requirement to confront the evil that slavery represents. They should not limit themselves to accounts of the management measures they have introduced in order to counter risks of trafficking. They should also begin to enumerate the law and policy failings in the countries in which they are operating that increase risks of human trafficking. 

 

Because it is a fundamental truth of contemporary politics: that the voice of business carries greater weight than that of conscience. As Spiderman teaches us, with that great power comes great responsibility. Business can use its voice to help set out the laws, policies and practices that are necessary to eliminate slavery in supply chains and, ultimately, in the world.

 

This goes to the heart of the matter. The elimination of modern slavery is a political issue. Those who are enslaved are excluded from power in part so they can be enslaved. This means that slavery is not a simple criminal justice challenge that good policing can resolve, nor a managerial one that can be resolved by new codes of practice, or ethically dubious social audits. 

 

In the end slavery eradication within supply chains and beyond will require a range of measures from diplomacy to international education, aid and trade policy. Business leaders can provide a vital service in this struggle by offering their insights on the causes of the slavery that they encounter. In other words, by no longer ignoring the evil of slavery, but going out to confront it, and, in doing so, joining the struggle to overcome it. 

 

Dr Aidan McQuade is Director at Anti Slavery International. 

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