The sustainable development goals defined the global priorities for development towards a sustainable society. The covers social and economic issues like poverty, hunger, health, gender equality, education, global warming, environment, and social justice.

Business and human rights

The 3 pillars of value for a 21st century-ready business are:

PEOPLE - PLANET - PROFIT

Human rights are the conditions for people to live well and live in dignity. Originally, human rights were seen as the
responsibility of states but human rights have increasingly become a company's business too. An important start for a company's strategy to contribute to the achievements of SDGs is to respect human rights. This means avoiding human rights abusers
either directly through their operations or indirectly through their subsidiaries and value chain partners.

 

For example, oil companies have been accused of causing large-scale pollution thus creating negative impacts on the right to health and the right of farmers to make a living out of their land.

Fashion houses have been linked to child labour, unsafe workplaces, and payments far below a living wage thus abusing various labour rights.

 

Financial institutions investing in large infrastructural projects have been accused of contributing to forced evictions of local communities from their lands without proper compensation, hence infringing their rights to a home. The worldwide standard for companies to respect human rights can be found in the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. To meet this standard, companies should have a due diligence process in place through which they can identify actual and potential negative human rights impacts. Not only in their own operations, but also by the subsidiaries and their value chain partners. Where these UN guiding principles focus on business responsibility to minimize negative human rights impacts, the UN sustainable development goals invite companies to create positive impacts for the societies in which they operate. At the same time creating
such positive impact often first requires that negative impacts are minimized. Companies react differently to societal expectations to respect the conditions for a sustainable society. Hence, they contribute differently to sustainable development. In the management literature four different attitudes are identified. An inactive or reactive, active, and a proactive attitude. Inactive companies limit
themselves to complying with binding legal duties and even that in a limited way. Reactive companies comply with UN guiding principles, but only in as much as as necessary to protect their reputation. By contrast, active and proactive companies not only take the responsibility to respect human rights very seriously. They also realized positive societal impact by actively contributing
to one or more SDGs. Let me give you an example to illustrate this. Let's assume a company aims to contribute to SDG five gender equality. This means that the first strategy of the company should be to respect human rights and ensure that women are not
discriminated against. Additionally, an active or proactive strategy would be to positively strive for gender equality, thus  empowering women to become more aware of their rights. To conclude, on one hand, contributing to the achievement of one or more SDGs starts with respecting human rights by not causing negative impacts. On the other hand, companies can further contribute to the achievement of SDGs by reacting positive societal impacts by actively protecting and fulfilling human rights and there's no trade off. Human rights abuses in one part of the company's operations cannot be cleaned or cleared by doing
something positive elsewhere. The UN guiding principles to respect human rights to do no harm and the SDGs to create positive impact are two flips of the same coin.