Sustainability Chat with Ulrika Sandberg, Senior Sustainability Advisor Worldfavor
In our Sustainability Chat series, we speak with leaders and dreamers in the world of sustainability – picking their brains on what drives them, their experiences working in the field, plus all the best tricks of the trade.
This time, we’re talking to one of our own superstars, Ulrika Sandberg, Senior Sustainability Advisor at Worldfavor. With her extensive background in human rights, she’s an expert in the field of social sustainability. Read on for her take on the relationship between business and human rights, how it’s evolved over time, and the role regulations have to play.
You have extensive experience working within human rights. Could you tell us a bit more about your background and what you do at Worldfavor?
Yes, of course. My name is Ulrika and I am a human rights lawyer with a research and analytical focus. I have worked within the area of human rights, including business and human rights, for almost 20 years, which has taken me to different parts of the African continent. Since I graduated with a Master's degree in human rights from the University of Edinburgh I have, among other things, worked as a researcher and advisor for the world’s largest human rights organization, Amnesty International, where I researched the oil and gas extraction in the Niger Delta, Nigeria primarily – but also lobbied for mandatory human rights due diligence legislation. In addition, I have worked as an ESG analyst for an international ESG consultancy, I have done internships at the UN Special Tribunal for the genocide in Rwanda, and I have undertaken many other human rights projects. Here at Worldfavor, I am working as a Senior Sustainability Advisor which means that I am focusing on the ‘S’ in ESG (that is to say, human rights and labor rights) within the fabulous Sustainability Data team. My role is to provide input on documents, monitor regulatory developments concerning human rights, map human rights risks related to supply chains and provide advice to customers and colleagues.
What is the relationship like between businesses and human rights at the moment?
I would say that businesses worldwide are increasingly understanding why human rights are important, especially since the UN’s adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in 2011. Before that, human rights concerns tended to be discussed following security incidents at extractive companies’ plants, for example. Currently, companies are gradually discovering that human rights concerns are not only issues in relation to a company’s effect on communities that live nearby the company’s operations, but that it can also concern the company’s own operations. To take a few examples, it can include issues such as discrimination, workers' health and safety, as well as its employees’ personal integrity.
The most common aspect of companies’ work on human rights relates to supply chain risks, where we see a continuous development of practical and digital tools, as well as regulations to drive change. But we need to be mindful that the outset changes all the time. Right now, when we find ourselves in the middle of a climate emergency, companies are facing questions on human rights risks connected to climate change and need to find ways to address these. In all, my view is that companies can be a positive force in driving the sustainability agenda. They are also becoming successively more aware that by not considering human rights risks, they may risk a tarnished reputation, due for example to a “name and shame campaign” of a non-governmental or research organization, legal or compliance risks, and perhaps financial risks as investors decide to divest. However, we still have a lot more work to do before we can safely say that companies live up to the principle of “do no harm” – which the UNGPs is founded on.
"Currently, companies are gradually discovering that human rights concerns are not only issues in relation to a company’s effect on communities that live nearby the company’s operations, but that it can also concern the company’s own operations."
What can companies do to identify their shortcomings and risks regarding human rights?
First of all, it is imperative that companies take a stand on human rights by adopting a policy that clearly states the company’s view on human rights, including which main human rights issues the company faces, depending on its sector and activities. Secondly, in order to make sure that the policy is not merely a paper exercise, it is key that the company adopts a system to implement the policy within the entire company, as well as its supply or value chain. This document and its implementation system need to be reviewed regularly in order to adapt to changing circumstances and thus enable improvements. The company also needs to continuously perform a human rights risk assessment, which is often called a “human rights due diligence analysis,” in order to identify the company’s most severe human rights risks or actual negative impact. This should involve the company’s operations and its suppliers, and stretch all through the supply chain – ideally throughout the whole value chain. It is important that the company consults its stakeholders, which can be union representatives, local communities that live nearby the company’s operations, non-governmental organizations, or subject matter experts on this process. In case the company finds that it has an ongoing negative impact on certain human rights, it needs to ensure that it stops those activities and commences a process to remediate those affected. Lastly, communicating all the above is key for any stakeholders, investors, and others to monitor how the company performs in terms of its human rights work.
Human rights are becoming more prioritized as a sustainability issue, and there are many upcoming laws and regulations on the topic. What are the consequences of not following these, and where should businesses start in order to comply?
Different laws have different purposes, designs, and enforcement mechanisms– often called sanctions. Some laws do not include any sanctions if a company fails to comply, like with many sustainability reporting regulations. However, other laws have sanctions (such as fines, or even blacklisting from participation in public procurement) attached to them as a means to ensure the application of the law.
The first thing a company should do is orient itself concerning what legislation is applicable to them. This depends on factors such as where its headquarters are located, where it has its main production sites, and perhaps also to which countries it exports. Depending on the size of the company, this legal overview can be done in-house, or it can be outsourced to a legal advisor or other service providers. As the regulatory landscape is changing rapidly, certainly within the European Union, it becomes increasingly important to keep up to date on the legal patchwork in order to minimize the risk of non-compliance. Worldfavor plays a very important role here by monitoring regulatory developments and providing platform solutions that fit customers' requirements. I love being part of the Worldfavor journey where we work to make sustainability mainstream, and thus also human rights.
What do you imagine the future of human rights legislation will look like?
First of all, I think it will become more common for countries to adopt national human rights due diligence legislation, that is, making the human rights due diligence risk analysis mandatory. I believe it is also more likely that such legislation will broaden and thus concern human rights risks at large, and not only zoom in on, for example, child labor or forced labor. In addition, I believe that with the current climate emergency we live in, human rights legislation will increasingly include the intersection between human rights and climate change. Without a liveable Earth we can not have human rights, and the climate emergency is already affecting our most fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, housing, clean water, and an adequate standard of living. Voices from developing countries and civil society are lobbying for forthcoming legislation to enable effective remediation so that those individuals or groups who have been negatively affected by companies' activities will have access to some form of remediation. In my opinion, that is a key element of successful human rights legislation, because it enables a good balance between the company and its different stakeholders.
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