Making HRIAs meaningful

Anna Triponel

January 19, 2024
Our key takeaway: More than five years after Oxfam began its Behind the Barcodes campaign, supermarket companies are making new progress on human rights by conducting and publishing human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) and follow-up action plans. Oxfam celebrates this progress, but its analysis finds that there is much room for improvement to make these HRIAs both meaningful and effective. Companies should strengthen their HRIAs by centering them around engagement with affected stakeholders, especially women and other vulnerable groups; assessing against all internally recognised human rights; applying a lens of risks to people rather than risks to the business; and exploring root causes that could include supermarkets’ own practices. Oxfam also calls on companies to take their HRIAs from paper to practice by investing in internal capacity and knowledge-building on human rights; involving rightsholders in the design and implementation of action plans; applying timebound targets and accountability measures for actions; monitoring effectiveness; and increasing transparency of their progress.

Oxfam published Towards Meaningful Human Rights Impact Assessments: From Supermarket Commitments to Best Practice Action (January 2024) as a part of its broader Behind the Barcodes campaign:

  • More supermarkets have committed to HRIAs but there are gaps in practice: As part of its Behind the Barcodes campaign, between 2018 and 2022 Oxfam ranked large supermarket companies on the strength of their policies and practices to address human rights in their supply chains. As a result of the campaign, multiple companies committed to conducting and making public the results of HRIAs and action plans to address the risks they identified; Albert Heijn (subsidiary of Ahold Delhaize), Aldi Nord, Aldi Süd, Jumbo, Lidl, Morrisons, PLUS, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have each published at least one HRIA report. At the same time, Oxfam’s analysis of these HRIAs shows that there are some gaps in practice that need to be bridged for assessments to be meaningful and effective. The top gaps identified include: “not prioritizing high-risk supply chains, limited scope of human rights considered, lacking internal and external capacity and expertise in the research teams, failing to engage rightsholders in a meaningful way or to implement gender-responsive approaches, overlooking vulnerable rightsholders, and inadequately addressing root causes such as purchasing practices as part of the analysis.”
  • Supermarkets are missing opportunities to take action: An important part of the human rights due diligence process is taking action on identified risks and impacts. Oxfam’s analysis shows that supermarkets are not yet demonstrating best practice in turning the results of their HRIAs into strong actions. The report identifies some areas for improvement: supermarkets “downplay their own potential impact and leverage for change, fail to formulate effective actions that actually address the negative impacts, such as measures on purchasing practices, do not consult rightsholders in the design and implementation of action plans, and are not transparent about the progress on implementation.” These actions are the building blocks to take an HRIA from paper to practice.
  • Top opportunities for supermarket companies: The report outlines the top ways that companies can improve both their assessment of impacts and their follow-up actions. According to Oxfam, companies should: (1) Commit to conducting HRIAs as part of a broader human rights and environmental due diligence process, ensuring that they are gender-responsive. (2) Plan an HRIA process that not only relies on skilled external human rights experts but also on internal teams that have dedicated resources and human rights expertise, focuses on the issues and suppliers that pose the highest risks to people, and importantly “[I]nvest in internal engagement to enhance effectiveness, including the engagement of higher management and buying departments, as well as other relevant internal stakeholders, particularly those involved in implementing mitigation measures.” (3) Collect the data and analyse impacts based on human rights legal frameworks and all internationally recognised human rights, on stakeholder engagement that empowers affected groups and individuals with information and ensures their safety, and on engagement that deliberately accounts for the ways that women and other vulnerable stakeholders can be impacted. Findings should be prioritised through the lens of salience (severity and likelihood of impact to people) and should seek to identify the root causes of impacts, including how the supermarket may be contributing to issues through their own purchasing practices. (4) Implement and monitor transparent action plans that are based on salience of issues and not on risk to the business, that include timebound commitments and mechanisms for accountability, and that involve rightsholders in their design and implementation. (5) Advocate for legislation that codifies human rights and environmental due diligence requirements for companies, including conducting stakeholder engagement-centred HRIAs.

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