Human Rights Means Prioritizing the Most Vulnerable

Written by
Actual Team

Purpose, Inc., episode 1.5: Caroline Rees, president of Shift

In this episode of Purpose, Inc., podcast host Michael Young talks to Caroline Rees, co-founder and president of Shift, a nonprofit center in New York focusing on business and human rights, about how human rights is not just the responsibility of governments and nonprofits.

Key takeaway: Prioritizing human rights means making people who are most severely impacted by how business gets done the starting point for your business strategy.

Before co-founding Shift, Caroline was a diplomat with the British foreign service for 14 years, and later helped draft the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. She also is a senior program fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Human rights, Caroline says, is no abstract legal matter. Boiled down, it refers to our ability to meet our basic needs: feed ourselves, sustain our families, and remain healthy. And businesses must play a role in ensuring these rights are met. “We need to think about who is vulnerable in communities to the ways that we do business, to pollution effects, to displacement effects, to livelihood effects,” she says.

COVID-19, she says, brought this issue into sharp relief in America. “The people who are on hourly wages, who have insecure jobs and short-term contracts, who are lacking benefits and health insurance, are the people who are most severely impacted,” she says. The pandemic also demonstrated that media, regulators, and investors are increasingly holding companies to account for their role in creating these vulnerabilities.

Building a human rights mindset

Making human rights a core part of a business’s ESG (environment, sustainability, and governance) strategy isn’t a matter of merely ticking off a few boxes on a sustainability compliance review. “It’s a mindset,” she says. “It’s almost an organizational culture to say: How are people most affected by our work, and how do we change that?”

How do we change that? A few of the suggestions Caroline discusses with Michael:

  • When you make changes to your business model, prioritize the most vulnerable: workers who are not considered employees, say, or small suppliers in remote areas with limited financial reserves to withstand crisis.
  • Secure buy-in from leaders to make human rights a central part of the business strategy, instead of siloing it in the CSR department.
  • Come together with other companies as an industry to put pressure on governments and suppliers to address widespread abuses like forced labor.

“It really is about finding which people are most vulnerable in our value chains and looking at how to fundamentally change that reality,” she says.

Listen to Michael’s conversation with Caroline Rees:

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