This interview first featured in cylindr, the magazine for changemakers, in January 2020, published here.
Where are you from, and why there?
My Mum’s English and my Dad’s French. Growing up, I moved a lot between various parts of England and France. It was only years later, driving along a dusty, bomb-riddled road in Libya, that I realised how much this had shaped me. My boss at the time said to me: “What’s great with you Anna is that you can be thrown into any new situation, and I know you’ll always be fine.”
Changing schools and neighbourhoods frequently taught me about the power of humanity – that the unknown simply is an opportunity to befriend new people that we didn’t know we were connected to before.
That excitement stays with me to this day, and I feel privileged to connect with individuals from all walks of life all around the world through my work.
Which issue(s) do you work on, and why?
I believe in business, and the power of business to innovate, to create, to break new ground. Through my career as a lawyer and now as an advisor to business (companies, investors and lawyers), I have worked with companies of all shape and form, all sectors and many geographic contexts. What these companies have in common is a drive to do better: to provide better products, to offer better services, to exhibit a higher share price.
Today, it takes true commitment and leadership for a company to grow without inadvertently exploiting people or damaging the planet. The system companies are operating in makes this exploitation and damage very likely, if not certain, to be occurring.
I’ve lived and worked in a number of countries across Africa and Asia. We see countries where manufacturing is built on 13-hour working days without breaks or days off, where asking for a pay rise from minimum wage after 30 years of service will get you fired, where harassment and fear at work is common place, where factories have exceedingly high carbon footprints and pollute neighbouring rivers, where accessing raw materials harms biodiversity, and where company products are used to support human rights violations. This doesn’t happen only in far-flung countries – we have seen extremely worrying situations occur here in Europe and the United States, linked to the rise in vulnerability as well as migration flows we are seeing due to geopolitics and, increasingly, the climate.
Companies operating in today’s world cannot be confident that complying with the law ensures they do not harm people or the planet.
This is where I come in. I work on empowering companies, lawyers and investors to respect both people and the planet in how they run their business. This entails for instance strengthening the company’s commitment so that it can be genuinely lived up to by those working for and with the company, strengthening the company’s operational processes so that its employees and business partners are incentivized and rewarded for behaving in alignment with the company’s commitment, considering the company’s carbon footprint and implementing rights-respecting, carbon-reducing solutions, and creating risk management processes so that the company can hear from and minimise harm to those it relies upon – whether they make the company’s products, live close to sites that do, or use these products.
This is what I see as the most transformational part of my work: connecting those working in business to what was previously viewed as numbers on a spreadsheet, but who are actually people. The invisible become visible.
How did you get involved?
Growing up, my favourite quote was from the film Little Lord Fauntleroy: “The world should always be a little better because a man has lived.” In my first year of law school, I worked with friends to set up a project in Benin. I was shocked by the poverty and health-threatening conditions I saw there and I left with a deep sense of injustice, that simply by virtue of being born where I was born, I had access to healthcare, education opportunities and a safe environment. Whether your human rights were respected and guaranteed in your lifetime appeared to boil down to luck.
In law school, I was asked to choose between business law and international and human rights law. I couldn’t make the choice. I saw the impact business could have on human rights – for good or for bad. Yet, companies did not feature even once in my human rights course. So, I chose to do both specialties together in parallel. (Looking back I’m surprised that my law school allowed it!) And in 2004, I did my Master’s thesis on business and human rights.
After fighting for recognition of my topic as a valid thesis choice (at the time, companies were not seen as ‘actors’ of international law), I was ecstatic when Harvard Professor John Ruggie was appointed by the UN in 2005 to clarify what human rights meant for business.
I brought John Ruggie on as my pro bono client, which led to my becoming a consultant to Harvard, and the rest, as they say, is history. This work led to the United Nations’ approval of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which has shaped the field ever since. I highly recommend John’s book, “Just Business”, if you’re interested in finding out more about this process.
What are the biggest challenges for the issue(s) today?
Three words: the climate emergency.
I am one of the last adults in the world to have experienced below average global temperature – anyone born from 1985 onwards has only ever known warm or record-breaking temperatures.
There will be more people in the world in the future (9 billion by 2050), able to rely on fewer resources while needing to adapt to a warmer and less predictable climate. We are already seeing climate change exacerbate human rights issues, as well as the human rights implications of carbon-reducing solutions.
We are the last generation that can prevent catastrophic global warming. We owe it those we leave behind on this planet to adopt an inter-generational approach and become agents of change. We can all do it, in small ways and large, in our personal and professional lives. A radical re-think of our patterns of consumption is starting, and I see tremendous opportunity for companies that get ahead of the game.
What drives you?
The people I meet. Their love, their plight, their life stories.
The story of an Indonesian trade union leader tortured for advocating for safe working conditions; of a Thai factory worker whose working hours allowed her to see her children only twice a year; and of an Indian farmer who can no longer grow his crops due to changes in weather conditions. Stories also of hope, of economic opportunities, and better lives thanks to rights-respecting businesses.
What do you want your career to stand for?
Respect, empathy, and voice.