In a rapidly changing world, political, economic, environmental and social crises are forcing people to move across regions and borders in pursuit of a better future. These conditions are creating a global, borderless workforce under vulnerable conditions, often ending in the so-called “informal” economy.

Frequently, human rights violations are tied to poverty, wage inequalities and other social issues that cannot be viewed in isolation. They must be addressed as part of the overall economic and political system because they are intertwined.

To tackle these challenges, we need new inclusive business models.

While new technology and the gig economy have brought access, agility and economic inclusion opportunities, these new business models must embed fundamental rights from the start – talking about values is not enough, what’s needed is protection of fundamental human rights.

At Unilever, we believe that human rights are the foundation of responsible and sustainable business. In 2014, we expanded our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan creating three distinctive pillars: Fairness in the Workplace is all about human rights, embedding UNGPs in our global business and operations. Opportunities for Women is all about women’s empowerment and the tripod of rights, skills to succeed and opportunities, including access to information, to markets, to funding. Inclusive Business focuses on new and inclusive models at the bottom of the pyramid (small-holder farmers, small-scale retailers, youth) – whether we work on new business in rural areas such as shakti or building capacity through farmers field schools or work directly eliminating unnecessary intermediaries.

Therefore, we have a clear commitment to respect human rights and address issues throughout our value chain.

Nevertheless, one company alone cannot resolve issues such as forced labour, because even if one company alone succeeds within its four walls, it may be moving the problem across the road. We need to be cognisant of a ‘shared responsibility’.

The ‘shared responsibility’ approach demands that we work in collaboration with civil society, labour organisations and peer companies to address endemic issues, tackling their root causes. We are already taking actions, operating in both developing and developed world. A brief description of some of our cross-company and cross-business initiatives are detailed here.

Our membership to AIM-PROGRESS focuses on promoting responsible sourcing practices and sustainable supply chains with other FMCGs and common suppliers. One of its key objectives is to build supply chain capability so that members and their suppliers are competent in executing robust responsible sourcing programmes. We also work together with peer companies at the Consumer Goods Forum as members of their Social Sustainability Committee (SSC), driving global collaboration between retailers and manufacturers in identifying and tackling key human rights issues such as the eradication of forced labour. And in May 2016 we were one of five founding companies to form the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment which focuses on promoting ethical recruitment.

At the heart of the action we take sits our Responsible Sourcing Programme. This is not just about auditing and human rights independent assessments, but much more about focusing on remedy and creating sustainable solutions. And we are judged on our results. In 2017, we were ranked #1 in the August 2017 Gartner Supply Chain Top 25 Consumer Products report for the second year in a row. Initiatives referenced included our Responsible Sourcing policies with strong human rights principles and a focus on due diligence.

In conclusion, we all have a shared responsibility. I have; you have; everyone has. We are all different individuals but we are equal. We have different points of view, distinctive voices, but we all have equal rights. Hence, we must commit to dialogue and use shared platforms and actively engage youth. We are in a unique position to bring solutions and action. There is no more time to waste. We need to enable action and positive change.

Written by Marcela Manubens, Global Vice President for Integrated Social Sustainability, Unilever.

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