The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights have been around for over three years. They set out a simple yet important reality: people around the world share the expectation that companies should not harm the fundamental rights of people as they go about their business. The Guiding Principles set out how companies can work to ensure that they respect human rights in practice.

So Human Rights Day is a good moment for those of us working in the field of business and human rights to ask the question “are we making progress?”When barely a week goes by without reports of slave labor on construction sites, of child labor in factories, of communities displaced from their land by mining or agriculture, what evidence do we have that the Guiding Principles have brought real change to how companies behave?

It’s frustratingly hard to answer that question as thoroughly as I would like. All of us looking for progress rely in large part on what we read or hear to arrive at broader conclusions. So unless or until a critical mass of companies start sharing publicly about what they are doing, they must expect the cynics to prevail.

This puts me in mind of the old philosophy question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”There is no question that in our work at Shift we see increasing evidence of ever more companies working to put the Guiding Principles into practice: the sound, though not yet deafening, is clear. Yet for those less closely involved, but listening expectantly, there is barely a faint echo to be heard. And those who hear little or nothing will assume that little or nothing is being done. Moreover, companies that really are doing little or nothing will conclude they can get away with just hiding within the silence.

So what’s the answer? Companies have to be ready to talk more openly about how they respect human rights: not as a slick PR exercise, but as a work in progress, being honest about the problems and the lessons, warts and all. No one is impressed or fooled today by reporting that glosses over widely known challenges.

Moreover, business has a lot to gain from this kind of honest reporting. It will help the real leaders stand out from the crowd. When Coke issued its first report on its work to respect human rights in Myanmar (no small challenge), it received positive public recognition. The NGO Earthrights International hailed it as, “a welcome change of pace from the reports submitted by other investors.”

It’s precisely this “change of pace” that we are trying to support through the creation of the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework, now publicly available as a first draft and launching for pilots in February 2015. The Reporting Framework was developed through multi-stakeholder consultations as part of the Reporting and Assurance Frameworks Initiative led by Shift and Mazars. It is the first comprehensive guidance for companies to report on how they meet their responsibility to respect human rights in line with the UN Guiding Principles. Unilever is already conducting a first pilot.

The Reporting Framework sets out a range of questions related to how a company avoids harm to human rights. The questions are designed to be feasible for companies to answer and to elicit information that is meaningful for readers. They provide a basic starting point of just eight questions that any company can start with, while enabling and incentivizing improvements over time. Meaningful communication is not about waiting until the company has a perfect story to tell – it never will. It is about companies showing that they take the issues seriously and are making progress in addressing them.

None of this is to claim that it’s simple for companies to evolve from the patchy or somewhat superficial reports that are all too prevalent today to this kind of meaningful communication. If it were, they would all be doing it already. Yet few are.

In reality, there is a fear within many companies that if they talk about the challenges and the unfinished processes, they might get sued on the grounds that bad things are therefore happening around their operations.

Caroline Rees, President of Shift
Caroline Rees

Such fears cannot be dismissed wholesale. Yet the growing evidence is that companies may face greater risk from failing to discuss real issues that people care about. Absent clear evidence to the contrary, many people will assume the worst and act on that assumption. How can they tell the difference, after all, between the company that is taking its human rights responsibilities seriously but not talking about it, and the company that is ignoring human rights abuses and hoping to get away with it?

Yet it’s not sufficient just to argue that companies can report publicly on the human rights issues they are addressing. My point here is that they should. Not just for me or for you, but in their own interests.

Put simply, honest information builds trust – an asset few companies can ignore today. It is a basic currency for their success in the market. It is the foundation of their reputation and a driver of customer opinion. Although customers rarely read company reports, they see the campaigns of the NGOs and others who do. Moreover, where trust evaporates, the costs to companies mount fast: through strikes, protests, campaigns, and even litigation, leading to delays to operations, lost business opportunities and reduced staff morale.

Of course, what really matters are companies’ actions, not their words. But by talking about their actions, with honesty, companies can foster understanding of the challenges they are tackling, be recognized for genuine efforts underway and can even generate better and collaborative solutions, recognizing that companies don’t hold all the answers or carry sole responsibility.

So my fervent hope this Human Rights Day is that a year from now, and even more so in the year after, we will have clearer and more convincing answers to the question of whether or not sufficient numbers of companies are making meaningful improvements in their practices to drive real change for people whose human rights are at risk. 

That some are doing so is clear. But some is not enough. So for all those with a story to tell – however short, however incomplete – it’s time to step forward, raise your voice and be heard. You may be surprised by just how much there is to gain from joining the conversation.

Caroline Rees is president of Shift, an independent nonprofit center for business and human rights practice. Learn more at