I am a straggler. Arriving after the start of an event usually raises a few judgmental eyebrows from the back row; however, tardiness is also an opportunity to display character. This is especially true when royalty is involved. Stumbling in late to an event with Her Majesty, Queen Silvia of Sweden, in Rio to open the Social Development track of the Global Corporate Sustainability Forum, takes special flair. The series of events inaugurated by Queen Silvia seeks to re-think corporate sustainability, positioning it on a new foundation of social dimensions and human rights.
The stakes are high when a small group composed of heads of states, corporate representatives and social activists convenes to discuss a topic. They are higher still when that topic involves the way corporations are affecting, either accidentally or intentionally, the most basic elements of humanity: dignity and life itself. As the somber master of ceremonies, Pierre Sane, the President of Imagine Africa International, said at the outset, “Corporate Social Responsibility is the human force of globalization.” A stiff formality hangs in the air.
Business as usual does not work anymore. “The tone has to be set on the top,” says panelist and ABB Head of Corporate Sustainability, Ron Popper. “You have to have the buy-in of top management for human rights issues.” This seems reasonable if even the Queen of Sweden frees her schedule to fly to Rio to discuss human rights. A straightforward Popper seems to be capable of bringing the issue to the board level. But is setting the tone at the CEO level sufficient?
Not according to Popper. Only yesterday he came back from one of ABB’s internal initiative to create awareness of human rights issues at the regional-management level. ABB’s global training program on human rights entails mitigating human rights risks through education and correcting corporate practices. Trainees are provided with concrete examples to drive home the message. The current focus of the program is to set up a network of human rights specialists within the firm. To work consistently, Popper recommends his peers to start such intra-firm awareness intitiatives before launching external corporate human rights initiatives engaging affected communities.
Compared to environmental issues, human rights issues are vague and difficult to measure. Renovating the corporate headquarters so that it’s energy and water efficient is tempting because it’s a highly visible investment. Deutsche Bank recently renovated its headquarters, creating one of the world’s most sustainable skyscraper in Germany’s financial centre Frankfurt. Restructuring a distant and invisible supply chain is less compelling for both CEOs and employees.
According to delegate Dost Bardouille-Crema, “many things have changed since 1992.” She continued, “In particular, extractive industries turn out to be more sensitive” than they were a decade ago. Globetrotting and adventurous, Dost Bardouille-Crema travels around the world for the Corporate Engagement Project and consults international oil firms in places like Colombia and Nigeria. Her goal is to help her clients “have constructive relationships with [the] communities where they work”.
I would have been excited to hear more about concrete engagement at all levels of the corporate ladder and with the many remote communities corporate activities impact. On the other hand, her Majesty’s broader points are well-taken. Ursula Wynhoven, General Council of the Global Compact Office told me that the purpose of this session is to launch a series of sessions that strive to showcase the practical implementation of intangible social dimensions in corporate sustainability. According to a well-informed Eynhoven, these intangibles have been mostly neglected in the past. This historic event represents the perfect opportunity to reexamine these intangibles and build a new foundation for corporate sustainability.