Business and human rights is bridging sustainability, inequality, stakeholder capitalism and ESG

Anna Triponel

October 26, 2020

Conversations about how people are affected by business conduct and the global economy are taking place – and a number of distinct narratives are influencing decision-makers today. We have (1) the development narrative of sustainability, (2) the political narrative of inequality, (3) the economic narrative of stakeholder capitalism, (4) the investment narrative of ESG performance, and (5) the accounting narrative of human and social capital. The narratives that drive these movements have evolved in silos, limiting their potential to achieve transformative change. In a paper for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Corporate Responsibility Initiative, Shift President and Co-Founder Caroline Rees outlines how business and human rights—which puts people at the center and is grounded in international law and norms—has the potential to bridge these narratives and amplify their individual momentum towards shared objectives.

Key takeaways

  • The paper discusses five key narratives driving these movements:
  • The development narrative of sustainability
  • The political narrative of inequality
  • The economic narrative of stakeholder capitalism
  • The investment narrative of ESG
  • The accounting narrative of human and social capital
  • These movements are framed differently depending on the institutions championing them and their objectives and unique contexts; they put the emphasis on different factors and entities impacting people and may drive towards different objectives—environment, economic development, worker empowerment, etc.
  • At their core, these narratives all focus on impacts to people and society—whether by amplifying positive impacts or mitigating negative impacts. At the same time, they are also in competition: “Those that dominate among political, economic and other decision-makers have a critical influence that cannot be ignored merely on the premise that one’s own feels more compelling or in some way more accurate.”
  • This is where the business and human rights narrative can have its greatest impact: as a nexus between these movements. Business and human rights—which focuses on the fundamental dignity and humanity of every person and is grounded in international law and global norms—can serve as a bridge between the other narratives and help to achieve their shared goals.
  • Respect for human rights is also a fundamental prerequisite to fulfill the objectives of these narratives: Treating respect for human rights as a “baseline expectation” for companies and governments “underestimated the extraordinary, transformative positive effects on people’s lives that can result from companies tackling the human rights risks connected with their business. For example, the ripple effects in people’s lives of raising their wages from a legal minimum to an actual living wage can be extraordinary in terms of health, housing, nutrition, education for children and more. Lifting children out of child labor and migrant workers out of bonded labor in company supply chains can transform their life prospects and those of their families. These positive impacts flow directly from tackling risks to human rights.”
  • The paper concludes with proposed ways to link these narratives through a broader set of indicators and metrics that can measure progress towards these shared goals.

Read the full paper here: Caroline Rees, Transforming How Business Impacts People: Unlocking the Collective Power of Five Distinct Narratives, Working Paper No. 75, Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School (November 2020)

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