What is the role for voluntary business and human rights initiatives as the conversation about legislation heats up?

Week of 10 May 2021

What is the role for voluntary business and human rights initiatives as the conversation about legislation heats up?

Our key takeaway: The UNGPs’ ‘smart mix’ between mandatory and voluntary approaches says it all: we can neither deliver fundamental progress towards respect for human rights or reach transformative solutions if we don’t see robust regulation and effective multistakeholder initiatives as two necessary pieces of the same puzzle.

On April 29, the Geneva Centre for Business and Human Rights (GCBHR), the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) hosted a panel discussion to discuss voluntary business and human rights multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs):

    • Voluntary measures are a key part of the ‘smart mix’ and can help bridge gaps not reached by legislation: Dorothée Baumann-Pauly (GCBHR) pointed out that regulation and voluntary MSIs should not be seen as “an ‘either-or’ approach” and that we should avoid drawing a “false dichotomy” between them. John Grova (Advisor to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights) emphasised that “voluntary initiatives alone are not enough … but at the same time experience of many decades shows that legal measures are essential but not sufficient.” Sara Dekkiche (International Cocoa Initiative – ICI) underscored that the current drive towards regulation can serve as a “push factor” for more resources and attention paid to effective voluntary initiatives.
    • Panelists agreed that the biggest value-add of voluntary MSIs is their power to pool resources, influence and knowledge towards tackling large-scale, systemic issues that cannot be addressed by one company alone. Yann Wyss (Senior Manager Social Impact, Nestlé) explained that, for Nestlé, participation in MSIs help the company to “scale our efforts either at the sectoral level or industry level or the national level or even sometimes at the global level.” They also serve as a valuable “incubator” of innovative solutions—while also ensuring that unsuccessful approaches can be scrapped, redirecting those resources and efforts elsewhere towards more effective programmes. André Podleisek(interim Head of Corporate Sustainability, Schindler Group) added that MSIs allow companies to go beyond internal perspectives to bring in external expertise that can combat ingrained biases: “You only see what you already know, so [working with other stakeholders] brings in the knowledge of what issues we should be working on.”
    • Not all MSIs are created equal—robust voluntary measures are defined by certain core success factors, summarized by WBCSD based on the conversations. These include: “being based on recognized standards, frameworks and conventions; having a governance structure in which different stakeholders are properly represented and have a voice in discussions and procedures; providing technical expertise and advocating based on facts; facilitating collaboration and collective action; offering processes for independent verification, validation and accountability; embracing transparency by publicly reporting on their own targets and impact on the one hand, and on their members’ efforts and performance on the other.”

For more, watch the full recording of the panel discussion here and see a summary of the key takeaways compiled by WBCSD here.