Responsible capitalism

TwentyFifty Ltd is a consultancy firm which helps companies put their commitments around social sustainability into practice. Luke Wilde, the company’s Managing Director, explains here why capitalism doesn’t have to mean treading on people’s human rights.

“Listening to the radio last week, I heard an owner of a small London business talk of ‘losing her dignity’ after a mis-sold interest rate swap left her business facing bankruptcy. Meanwhile, in Orissa in India, a forest farmer was speaking to a colleague brokering a commercial relationship between the farmers and a large pulp mill: 'We want the pulp mill’s business, but not at any cost – not at the cost of losing our dignity.' Fair treatment and dignity lie at the heart of respect for human rights. 

“Our economy is in crisis. Confidence in capitalism has been rocked. Wherever you look, we have failed to be mindful of human rights in going about our business:

  • The slave-like working conditions found in Dutch-owned wheat fields in Argentina 
  • The furore at the UK ‘workfare’ scheme which put the young unemployed into work with national retailers without pay
  • The oil-polluted creek beside a Nigerian village, killing the fish on which the villagers depended – with no compensation forthcoming.

“New technologies are also bringing challenges. In the UK, changes to Facebook or Google privacy settings might be a little unsettling. In a totalitarian regime, they can mean the difference between freedom and captivity.

“I don’t think we intended to end up here. The business leaders I meet want to run companies that respect human rights, and their employees want to be proud of what they do. But we simply have not carried out the analysis to know what impact our businesses have on human rights.

“Last year, the United Nations published Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Developed over six years in an international dialogue between businesses, governments and civil society, the principles set out what governments can do to protect their citizens and what businesses can do to show respect for human rights, both in their own operations and in their relationships with others. These principles form the manifesto for the responsible capitalism our political leaders are now calling for. 

“This is not corporate social responsibility; neither is it some add-on to ‘business as usual’. The need to respect human rights speaks to the heart of how business should be done. European governments – the UK included – have signed up to preparing implementation plans for the principles by the end of this year. This will have implications for all UK-based business. The principles have also strengthened the hand of organisations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, which are already investigating and shaming the worst corporate culprits. 

“As with concerns over the environment and global warming, companies can try to simply tough it out, using PR and lobbyists as weapons against the likely tide of legislation. Alternatively they can get on to the front foot, and instead look for opportunities. The smarter companies are already doing this: assessing the implications of the principles for the way they do business, and identifying how they can best secure reputation and gain corporate advantage.” 

For more information on TwentyFifty visit: www.twentyfifty.co.uk

The Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights can be accessed at: www.business-humanrights.org/SpecialRepPortal/Home/Protect-Respect-Remedy-Framework/GuidingPrinciples

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK