Key 2023 insights and the road ahead

Anna Triponel

December 22, 2023

2023 is coming to a close. What are the reports we know you’ve really enjoyed reading that we have highlighted for you this year, and what are the themes that you have been talking to us about - or that we know you will be soon? Here goes.

We are already past key “key tipping points” on climate change and nature according to the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute: “Tipping points in the natural world pose some of the gravest threats faced by humanity. Their triggering will severely damage our planet’s life-support systems and threaten the stability of our societies.” And, we’ll have used up our remaining carbon budget in just five years, by 2028, according to researchers at Imperial College London.

Action can still help us address some of the worst effects of climate change. The Systems Change Lab highlighted the central role for companies in drastically reducing their own emissions across the value chain, but they can also have a multiplier effect across the economy by advocating for such policies, taking meaningful efforts that will support national goals, and both encouraging and facilitating action on the part of their suppliers across the globe. What’s more, a study by BEworks found that creativity, optimism and hope can help us get past some of our biggest institutional and psychological barriers to action.

Climate change is a human rights impact in itself, and it’s also driving new human rights risks and impacts across the globe, from impacts on children, climate-induced displacement, severe inequality, heat stress and worker well-being, and increases in modern slavery. The IPCC and Earth Commission both issued alarming reports on the severe impacts that surpassing our earth system boundaries are already having on livelihoods, health, access to water, food and more. As other examples, the World Meteorological Organisation warned of “staggering inequalities” caused by climate change, while the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child emphasised that children are facing some of the worst effects of climate change now and into the future.

Nature isn’t getting the attention it needs by companies and governments alike. Protection of nature, biodiversity and oceans are critical buffers against some of the worst effects of climate change. The World Benchmarking Alliance’s 2023 Nature Benchmark pointed out that companies haven’t fully embedded nature protection, are not setting meaningful goals and are not always effectively consulting or respecting the rights of impacted communities and human rights and environmental defenders who can serve as frontline guardians of nature.

Human rights and environmental defenders face more risks than ever when speaking out in defense of their communities, nature and human rights. Global Witness, Frontline Defenders, Shift, and the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre all released disturbing statistics on murders of and violence against defenders. One figure that says it all: Global Witness reported that 177 people lost their lives in 2022—including five children—an average of one defender killed every other day.

Companies are still falling behind on gender equality across their value chains. For example, while they might be meeting targets in terms of internal equality and working towards pay parity, the World Benchmarking Alliance’s 2023 Gender Benchmark found that a large number of companies are setting high expectations for their suppliers, then undermining them through harmful purchasing practices.

So what are the themes ahead for business going into 2024?

Just transition

For those of you who work with us and/or read our weekly updates regularly, this one won’t be a surprise—the future is all about a just, equitable transition that brings along and empowers the most vulnerable groups (including human rights and environmental defenders), while tackling the world’s biggest climate challenges. The blue economy—how our oceans fit into the bigger picture on climate change, biodiversity and human rights—will also continue to rise to the forefront alongside land-based solutions to address climate change.

Legislation, regulation and lawsuits

Laws codifying human rights and environmental due diligence and supply chain transparency are no longer on the horizon--they are here. We’re seeing companies working to build and implement human rights and environmental due diligence, drive better disclosure of risks to people and planet in their operations and along the full value chain, and bringing along suppliers and customers in third countries to support these efforts. The name of the game will be collaboration and partnership-based approaches. Globalised supply chains mean companies can’t comply on their own nor can they simply push expectations onto suppliers. Leading companies are already working collaboratively with peers and cross-sectoral stakeholders, supporting small suppliers to meet expectations and, most importantly, empowering and elevating the voices of impacted people to improve their practices.

Business transformation that meets climate and human rights imperatives

Companies have started to see the new to shift towards a strategic transformation, looking five, ten and even 30 years down the road to determine how they can meet internal goals and external expectations on social and environmental sustainability topics. This can include transforming their business strategy, making changes to the structure of the business and embedding more responsible purchasing practices. Breaking down the silos between different areas of the business will also be key—in order to take a holistic look at interconnected topics--human rights, environment, climate change, income inequality, compounding impacts on vulnerable groups, etc., more internal governance and cross-functional collaboration will be needed.

AI, emerging tech and human rights

Even if you’re not a tech company or a financial services company, chances are your company is probably using AI somewhere in the business for topics like logistics, hiring, product development, marketing and beyond. The implications of human rights risks and impacts are likely to increase as the technology becomes more sophisticated and more prevalent and teams focused on sustainability and human rights are going to be asked to answer for these issues.

Applying an intersectional lens to human rights efforts

Many companies are beginning to bring a more nuanced approach and understanding to the different ways that different groups of stakeholders can be affected by their business and their business partners. Considerations around intersectionality will require companies to shift how they assess and address human rights impacts on different vulnerable groups. People who experience vulnerability in multiple ways, across gender, race, ethnicity, religion, LGBTQI+ identity, indigenous identity and beyond will be affected differently as human rights issues compound. Cross-cutting issues like poverty, the effects of climate change, and displacement are also increasingly affecting how companies map their affected stakeholders and how they engage with them in a meaningful, rights-respecting way.

Considering human rights against the geopolitical landscape

This question is certainly not a new one. That said, customers, investors, NGOs and governments are increasingly pushing companies to take more of a leadership role on what were once considered purely political issues for states to deal with (just two cases in point: challenging questions for companies about how they are responding the junta in Myanmar and the Russia-Ukraine conflict). We’re seeing that companies need to be “conflict-ready” in their human rights approach, thinking through tough issues like when to lean in and when and how to responsibly disengage; how to protect their own employees, supply chain workers and customers caught up in conflict zones; and what kinds of products and services they will or will not continue to provide in a conflict context.

Lots to reflect on as we close the year...

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