Corporate Accountability and the UN Sustainable Development Goals: How Responsible Business Conduct could and should play a decisive role

SDGsProfessor Roel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct (@nieuwenkamp_csr)

The UN has now agreed to the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 goals which will define the post-2015 development agenda. It is recognised that the private sector has an important role to play in economic and social development. Private sector growth can create income opportunities, contribute to human capital development and lead to technology transfers, among other positive economic and social effects. For example, in Bangladesh the apparel sector has been credited in lowering the official poverty rate from 70% to less than 40%. Today it employs tens of millions of workers globally, predominantly women, which has contributed to empowering women from poor communities.

However, as we have also witnessed in Bangladesh in the context of the apparel sector, in order to avoid other negative impacts, businesses must behave responsibly. Not just within their direct operations but throughout their supply chains and business relationships. This is particularly important in weak regulatory contexts. Given that a significant portion of global manufacturing takes place in such contexts, if multinationals would commit to promoting sustainability and responsible business conduct throughout their supply chains this would have a decisive impact on the success of the SDGs.

The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises on Responsible Business Conduct currently represent the most comprehensive set of government-backed recommendations on responsible business conduct. They are an important tool for promoting responsible business conduct globally, and therefore for supporting global development.

The OECD Guidelines state as an overarching objective that enterprises should contribute to economic, environmental and social progress with a view to achieving sustainable development. Furthermore under the Guidelines enterprises are expected to avoid causing or contributing to adverse impacts (social, environmental, human rights, etc.), through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur. Therefore the Guidelines promote a concept of responsible business conduct which includes both the idea that business should do no harm and that they can do well by doing good. This applies to an enterprise’s direct operations as well as products, operations and services throughout its supply chain.

Currently 46 countries adhere to the Guidelines, and therefore make a binding commitment to promote RBC amongst businesses operating in or from their territories. Adherent countries represent diverse geographies and include OECD member states as well as 12 non-OECD member countries (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Jordan, Latvia, Lithuania, Morocco, Peru, Romania and Tunisia). These 46 countries account for around four-fifths of outward FDI and two-thirds of inflows and are home to the majority of multinational enterprises. This means that the Guidelines are relevant even for non-adherent nations looking to attract investment or home to companies operating abroad.

Linkages amongst the OECD Guidelines and SDGs

Given the instrumental role that business has to play in sustainable development the OECD Guidelines directly support many of the aims of the SDGs. Some of the main complementarities amongst the OECD Guidelines are outlined in the table here: MNE Guidelines SDGs

Perhaps the most important feature of the Guidelines is the National Contact Point mechanism, the built in grievance mechanism of the Guidelines. Countries adhering to the Guidelines are obligated to establish NCPs which are tasked with promoting the Guidelines as well as providing a platform for mediation and conciliation of alleged non-observance by the Guidelines. Given the substantive overlap between the RBC recommendations of the OECD Guidelines and the SDG’s the NCP system can serve as an important tool in advancement of the objectives under the SDGs.

Although the NCP mechanism does not have legal authority and thus cannot impose sanctions nor mandate that parties participate in the process, it has nevertheless proven to be an effective tool in promoting sustainable development. Utilizing the NCP mechanism provides a venue for enterprises to discuss and explore issues regarding responsible business conduct in a low-cost, non-adversarial manner, which can avoid further escalation of disputes. The OECD NCP mechanism has a growing track record of agreements resulting through mediation. For example in 2014 the UK NCP resolved a complaint brought by the World Wildlife Fund based on the activities of Soco, an oil exploration company, in Virunga national park, a world heritage site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The mediation resulted in Soco agreeing to cease its operations, to never again jeopardise the value of another world heritage site and to conduct environmental impact assessments and human rights due diligence in line with international standards. Such a result directly supports the environmental agenda of the SDGs.

A complaint submitted by UNI Global Union and the International Transport Workers Federation against DHL also led to a useful agreement at the German NCP. The complainants and the company agreed to respect the rights of workers to establish and join trade unions in Turkey, India, Colombia, Indonesia and Vietnam. In another case concerning the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh, the complainant, Uwe Kekeritz, member of the German Bundestag, and Karl Rieker, a garment company, reached an agreement in which Karl Rieker committed to improve the fire and building safety standards in its supplier factories. Measures included reducing of the number of supplier factories, establishing long-term supplier relations, close supervision by local staff, and signing the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The conclusion of these cases supports the SDG goal of protecting labour rights and promoting safe and secure working environments for all workers.

Many NCP cases tackle multiple issues and thus can contribute to several aspects of the SDGs. For example in a complaint by several NGOs against the Cameroon palm oil giant Socapalm and its owners (France’s Bolloré) the French NCP brokered an agreement in which Socapalm agreed to improve workers’ conditions in Socapalm and its suppliers, improve stakeholders engagement with local communities, and reduce environmental damage.

Although non-binding, this soft law mechanism can have hard consequences. If mediation in the context of an NCP procedure fails an NCP may issue a statement with recommendations, sometimes including a statement on whether a company did or not act in adherence with the recommendations of OECD Guidelines. While such determinations may cause significant reputational damage to a company they can also protect a company’s reputation in instances when conduct is found to be consistent with the recommendations of the OECD Guidelines. Furthermore in some contexts governments consider NCP statements with regard to economic decisions, e.g. in the context of public procurement decisions or in providing support to international operations. For example, export credit agencies of OECD member countries must take into account the final statements of NCPs when they make decisions on export credit guarantees. Additionally, some countries have taken NCP decisions and processes into account with regard to their commercial diplomacy.

Beyond government related commercial consequences, increasingly financial institutions are conducting human rights due diligence. This process is being conducted to avoid ethical and commercial risks associated with being linked to such operations. Likewise institutional investors have increasingly started to apply pressure in situations where human rights issues are identified and in some cases have been known to pull their investment where adverse impacts are not adequately addressed. For example in 2010, investors withdrew from mining company Vedanta following an upheld NCP complaint. All this can increase the cost of capital.

The private sector has an important role to play in realizing the SDGs and in this respect, the OECD Guidelines provide a strong existing framework for corporate accountability supporting the aims of the SDGs. Specifically, where the SDG address behaviour of enterprises the NCP mechanism of the Guidelines will continue to function as a strong tool for encouraging responsible behaviour. Governments should take a whole of government approach to this tool and strengthen the NCP system with the SDG’s in mind. For countries with an existing NCP this means strengthening the mechanism and providing it with adequate resources to fulfill its tasks. Finally, multinationals should play their role by behaving responsibly within their direct operations as well as throughout their supply chains.

Useful links

OECD and the Sustainable Development Goals

Guest author

Leave a Reply