Delivering human rights is abstract and hard to measure however, what if you could see the human rights history of a product before you bought it? The founder of the Swiss clothing company Switcher has created such a system. Respect Code, his novel track and trace system allows consumers to see the source and history of all of the components in a finished clothing product thus including human rights and environmental impact in the purchase decision. According to their website 40 million products now carry Respect Codes.
This was just one of the things that was presented at a recent Geneva conference which aimed to give company executives a practical how-to guide to delivering human rights. On Monday 26 January 2015, John Ruggie, Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former UN Secretary-General Special Representative on business and human rights, gave the keynote speech at a conference entitled “Human rights “without borders”: Risks and challenges for Swiss companies”, held at The Graduate Institute in Geneva.
Professor Ruggie’s talk focused on the theme “The UN’s ” Project, Respect and Remedy ” framework for corporate human rights responsibilities: A leadership opportunity for Swiss Companies”.
“Doing right because it is right” remains the core principle. In addition, as Professor Ruggie pointed out, in many cases there is also a business case for defending human rights for corporates, which should not be neglected. Human rights is often an abstract concept for many, and a pragmatic approach that demystifies this, in particular for industry leaders, putting it in terms that executives and entities can understand has been developed by Professor Ruggie.
The United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights have been widely accepted in business and politics, largely thanks to Professor Ruggie’s ability to develop a pragmatic Human Rights language namely through the presentation of legal and reputational risks incurred by companies in breach of human rights, whether by accident or design. The foundation of which is Polycentric Governance between Public, Civil and Corporate entities.
Professor Ruggie then went on to develop the “HOW” for Business, which is often where corporates are looking for support, and how they can avoid contributing to human rights issues. One of the biggest challenges identified to date is how to build leverage internally for the departments focused on ensuring human rights are respected. According to the old adage, “What you can’t measure, you can’t manage”, and to this end, companies like Unilever have developed very in-depth metrics to track their performance in this domain. Starting with the small things ensures that it does not escalate into violent confrontations, as what happened with Shell in Nigeria, where according to Professor Ruggie, a senior executive from Shell said “Having these (Guiding Principles) 20 years ago would have saved lives and saved us a lot of trouble”
Leadership opportunities for Switzerland: Professor Ruggie suggested that Switzerland focus on the Commodity Trading Companies, Banking and SME sectors, and that foundations such as the Fondation Guilé focus on supporting business in how to report on this in their corporate extra-financial reporting.
The keynote talk was then followed by a panel discussion on “How can Switzerland make the difference?” moderated by Klaus Leisinger, Member of the Board of the Fondation Guilé, former Chairman of the Novartis Foundation, and President of the Global Value Alliance.
During the panel discussion, there was a great deal of discussion on how companies can intervene and what they can do, what is the legal framework provided by the Swiss government and what they are working on, the commodity and travel industry and how NGO’s are contributing.
Robin Cornelius, founder of Switcher, presented his venture Respect Code. Their system gives businesses a way to present their human rights credentials to consumers. This is where it matters: the point of purchase. Their motto is: Traceability, Transparency and Trust. The aim is to cut through the spin and give businesses away to distinguish themselves by show casing their human rights credentials in a highly visible way. Respect Code’s dream is make their codes ubiquitous. Consumers scan or enter the codes into a database that returns the human rights and environmental history of the product.
He gives priority to the use of natural and recyclable materials and guarantees respect for the working conditions of all employees throughout the entire production chain, pointed out that SME’s are much more flexible than large corporates, and thus provide a significant opportunity for the implementation of the Guiding Principles. He went on to point out that indeed measuring is important and that this should be integrated into a track and trace. This would bring to the fore key indicators of the Guiding Principles, that are then made public, allowing the consumer to bring their voice into the equation, putting pressure on organizations to comply with the Guiding Principles and thus respect fundamental Human Rights.
A question to Le News readers: what do you think of Track & trace for Human rights?
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For more on this conference:
Interview of Professor John Ruggie and Klaus Leisinger prior to the conference.
The Graduate Institute of Geneva has posted a video of the full conference on their YouTube channel.