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Human rights challenges are industry-specific. Human rights challenges are rarely unique to individual companies, but they are typically similar for an entire sector. Identifying the most critical human rights risks per sector ensures that each company works on the most material human rights issues through their core business operations. For example, companies in the manufacturing sector need to focus on ensuring compliance with labor standards in their global supply chains, while Information Communications Technology (ICT) companies need to discuss how they ensure the rights to freedom of expression and privacy through (or despite) their core business models.
Standards are a prerequisite for measuring and reporting human rights progress. Without a clearly defined human rights standard, “measuring” and reporting human rights progress produces meaningless data. A commonly accepted standard prevents companies from picking easy and marginal human rights topics while ignoring critical ones. It ensures comparability and enables public accountability. Defining a human rights standard and operationalizing this standard into measurable indicators thus needs to be the first step of any serious corporate commitment to human rights.
Collective efforts drive better outcomes. Practically speaking, addressing human rights means setting substantive human rights standards in a given industry, supported by a common framework for implementation. Companies in the same industry are more effective when they work together. Common standards ensure a level playing field that makes it more difficult for free riders. Such collaboration also increases each individual company’s leverage in the supply chain, improves accountability with respect to implementation efforts, and allows companies to share and pool resources and experiences. This standard-setting process should be inclusive and integrate the perspectives of all stakeholders that are relevant for addressing a specific human rights challenge. Some recently developed multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) provide models from which we can learn, such as the Fair Labor Association, Global Network Initiative, the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers.
Industry-specific human rights standards defined and enforced through MSIs create an enabling environment within which the business case for human rights becomes easy to make. Industry-specific human rights standards create a level-playing field for all actors in one industry and aligns them around long-term objectives. Companies that disrespect the standards will be subject to scrutiny from industry-peers and the public. Companies that excel at human rights implementation over time are then able to communicate their successes and gain trust with consumers and investors. In contrast to a business case that is based upon an individual differentiation strategy, a business case within an MSI framework is systematic because it sets incentives for all players to raise the bar. It also gives industry participants greater leverage to shape regulatory reform (see, for example, the efforts of the Global Network Initiative on surveillance reform).
Business and human rights is distinct from the broadly defined CSR concept. A business and human rights approach focuses on aligning core business activities with human rights standards. Corporate social responsibility typically focuses on enhancing brand value through marketing a broad range of activities such as community development, environmental protection, corporate philanthropy, and perhaps attention to human rights. CSR is thus broader and less specific than a business and human rights framework.
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