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How to innovate human rights for the next generation


Authored by Marcela Manubens

What part should business play in championing human rights? What fresh challenges does the digital economy bring? Marcela Manubens, Unilever’s VP for Integrated Social Sustainability, highlights four areas where innovation is key.

Protest on streets for equal rights

About the author

Marcela Manubens

Marcela Manubens

Unilever VP, Integrated Social Sustainability

Marcela Manubens leads Unilever’s human rights and social sustainability
agendas, including the ‘Enhancing Livelihoods’ ambitions of our Sustainable
Living Plan which encompasses the implementation of UN Guiding Principles on
Business and Human Rights.

The theme of this year’s Human Rights Day on 10 December is ‘Youth Standing up for Human Rights’. It’s fitting testimony to the leadership collective youth movements have shown this year on issues such as climate change, gun control, racism, hate speech and LGBTQ+ rights. It’s also a reminder that the next generation have the right to a say in what their future looks like.

While human rights are fundamental to every individual and do not change, the societal context does not stand still. Therefore, we must be vigilant and address new realities effectively to ensure the protection of human rights and to advocate for the next generation of rights such as those linked to the changes, for example, that technology and the digital economy bring.

My role in developing Unilever’s rights and social impact agenda is both a magnificent opportunity and a tremendous responsibility. In today’s world where some states may fail to protect and conditions are inconsistent with the rights and values Unilever promote, we can find ourselves filling that gap

Here are four areas where we can all innovate to ensure that human rights remain strong for this generation and the next.

1. Have a business strategy with human rights at its core

In the 1990s, the American political strategist James Carville attracted the attention of the US electorate with the phrase ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. My own version is ‘It’s the business model, stupid’.

When we talk about human rights, we often address the symptoms, not the cause.

This is the reason why we have Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan. It ensures we look at human rights across the entire value chain from R&D to manufacturing, distribution, the use of products and their disposal.

And it changes to reflect business change. For example, we are currently ensuring that the human rights and labour conditions of workers are built into the new models we’re developing to support a new plastics economy. Or we’re tackling the emergence of borderless workforces by putting responsible recruitment policies in place.

2. Take a stand with policy-makers

Companies are not legislative entities but we can – and must – lend our voice for human rights stewardship and the advancement of sustainability.

Participation and collaboration are key to innovating policy and we have worked hard to embed this in our own strategy and culture.

On the world stage, that has seen us take an active stand in the support of the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change.

On a company-wide scale, it has seen us work to address our own salient human rights issues in our 2017 Human Rights Report.

At a brand level, it has seen Ben & Jerry’s take a stand on marriage equality and refugee rights.

3. Develop new human rights that address new challenges

Business prides itself on its ability to innovate. It is therefore the shared responsibility of new and established businesses to innovate to address the fresh issues societies face. Current frameworks are outdated and ineffective in the ‘millisecond’ world.

Technological advances have prompted the need for a new generation of rights to address discrimination through algorithms and their impact on freedom of speech and thought; to address potential discrimination between humans and machines; and to protect privacy in a world of radical unparallelled transparency.

New tech-first business models need to embed fundamental rights in their DNA. Instead of viewing themselves as simply a tech ‘platform’, they should work to incorporate fair wages and working conditions into the gig economy model from the get-go.

And in another very different case, a year or more ago, the New Zealand government granted legal ‘persona’ status to a river.

Policy-makers protected nature with a new set of rights – how could businesses or individuals support such a move?

Feature image - Marcela Manubens
The most important stakeholder in helping businesses promote human rights is you – our consumers. With every purchase you are enabling business practices that make an impact. Marcela Manubens

4. Beyond business: investors and consumers have a part to play

We need collective action and a transformation of markets to reward long-term value. In his letter to shareholders this year, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, which manages nearly $6 trillion in investment, said that “society is increasingly looking for companies both public and private to address pressing social and economic issues”.

The good news for investors is there is a link between purpose and profit. Our Unilever brands with purpose have outperformed other brands – not only financially, but also on positive social impact.

But the most important stakeholder in helping business promote human rights is you – our consumers.

With every purchase you are enabling business practices that make an impact. With every choice you make you are playing your part in driving financial investment and the markets. With every purchase you make, you are voting for what matters to you.

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