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Promoting inclusive business through responsible business. Part 1 – Outsource production not responsibility

9 September 2015
by Guest author

Sleek_Garments_Industry_in_GhanaRoel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct (@nieuwenkamp_csr). Part 2 is here.

Inclusive business and inclusive growth have of late become powerful buzz words in the realm of international policy. Inclusive business is a private sector approach to providing goods, services, and livelihoods on a commercially viable basis to people at the base of the pyramid by making them part of the value chain of companies’ core business as suppliers, distributors, retailers, or customers.[1] Several years ago the G20 launched a challenge to find the best examples of inclusive business in developing countries which resulted in the identification of various innovative and effective business schemes. While some business models are purposefully ‘inclusive’, i.e. they specifically target poorer populations, the nature of global commerce today has also resulted in inclusivity without necessarily intending to do so. For example in Bangladesh the apparel sector has been credited in lowering the official poverty rate from 70% to less than 40%. Today the sector employs tens of millions of workers globally, predominantly women, which has contributed to empowering women from poor communities.

It is undeniable that the private sector has an important role to play in economic development and that the globalization of supply chains has provided important growth opportunities for developing countries. However in order to be beneficial to local populations, particularly those at the base of the pyramid, business must act responsibly. For example, workers employed by apparel factories in developing countries are notoriously paid below a living wage, forcing them to work excessive hours and limiting their agency in refusing to work in unsafe conditions. Indeed the link between wages and working conditions was put in stark relief in the wake of Rana Plaza. However payment of living wages contributes to raising populations out of poverty, can result in increased retention of staff and productivity and can lead to improved workplace health and safety by increasing worker agency.

The OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises represent the most comprehensive set of recommendations by governments to companies on responsible business conduct. Under the OECD Guidelines business are expected to make a positive contribution to economic, environmental and social progress with a view to achieving sustainable development. They are also expected to avoid and address adverse impacts through their own activities and prevent or mitigate adverse impacts directly linked to their operations, products or services by a business relationship. In other words businesses are not only responsible for the impacts and conditions of their direct operations but throughout their supply chains. Under the framework of the Guidelines companies can outsource their production but not their responsibility. The OECD Guidelines are accompanied by a unique grievance mechanism – the National Contact Points – that contributes to their effectiveness and implementation. This system exists in 46 countries and recently received prominent support from G7 Heads of State.

Staying Engaged and Continuous Improvement

This two fold obligation of doing good in addition to doing no harm has important implications with regards to promoting inclusive growth. Most importantly, this expectation means that business are encouraged not to simply disengage at the first sign of potential environmental or social risks within their supply chain but are rather urged to engage in risk mitigation efforts and to take into account the potential social and economic adverse impacts related to a decision to disengage from a certain business relationship.[2] This is important because industries which feature the most severe risks are often also those which the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population rely on for their livelihoods. One area where the benefits of continued engagement have clearly been demonstrated is in the context of responsible mineral sourcing.

Since 2011, the OECD has helped lead a global movement to prevent the production and trade of minerals used in everyday products from benefiting armed groups and perpetrators of serious human rights abuses. The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict Affected and High-Risk Areas was developed in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the great lakes region of central Africa where illegal mineral exploitation has been linked to support of armed groups engaging in human rights abuses in the region. The Guidance however is more broad-based than that, applying to any minerals being sourced from any high-risk or conflict affected areas globally.

Related legislative efforts, most famously the US Dodd-Frank Act, Section 1502 have also been developed to address this problem but have faced criticism suggesting that such initiatives result in de facto trade embargos, further harming local populations that rely on the mining sector for their livelihoods. The OECD Guidance for Responsible Mineral Sourcing however rejects the suggestion of disengagement except in extreme circumstances and provides strategies to create economic and development opportunities in high-risk contexts.

For example, in the context of artisanal and small scale mining (ASM), initiatives to promote formalization and legalisation efforts of ASM activity are encouraged, in the DRC this has resulted in special legal zones for ASM activity. The implementation programme also encourages finding solutions for workable cohabitation of ASM and large scale mining activities. Such efforts have resulted in impressive results. In the three years since the implementation program for the OECD Guidance for Responsible Mineral Sourcing was launched, market access has been achieved for approximately 70,000 artisanal miners in the DRC and Rwanda, which in turn support approximately 350,000 dependants, with better prices, better conditions, and secure long-term opportunities.

The apparel sector also provides a good example of the strong relationship between inclusive business and responsible business. As noted, the apparel sector has served as an important economic driver for Bangladesh as well as other developing countries. However, in the wake tragedies such as Rana Plaza and the Tazreen factory fires many global brands were put under fire for not adequately managing risks at the manufacturer level of their supply chains. Many of the risks of the textile sector are systemic— they are imbedded in the nature of the industry and exacerbated by the development challenges and weak rule of law in the countries where production is often based. Thus these risks cannot be addressed overnight and an approach of continuous improvement in which buyers encourage improved standards within supplier factories over time is preferable to those which recommended cutting off business relationships or boycotts. Under an approach of continuous improvement sourcing from countries with weak regulatory frameworks, where often populations are most in need of employment opportunities, is not discouraged but rather strengthened.

[1] See Concept Note of the Turkey hosted G20-B20 Workshop on “Inclusive Business”

[2] OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, Chapter II: Commentary, para. 22

One Response leave one →
  1. Charles Kovacs permalink
    September 9, 2015

    I found the first part of the article very useful as an explanation of what inclusive business and inclusive growth are. The rest of the article was disconcerting, not because of its style, but its content and implications. Arguing that companies can outsource production but not responsibility is a good soundbite but in fact one cannot have responsibility without authority. Companies can impose contractual obligations and conditions on their subcontractors, but that is about all and they certainly cannot be responsible to third parties for the actions of their subcontractors, unless these subcontractors are performing in an agent capacity. Moreover, when an activity is outsourced, the contractual relationship is usually between two companies and the relationship is not one of between contractor and subcontractor but buyer and seller. Here too, the buyer can impose conditions, but his remedies in case of breach are limited to arbitration and/or legal action.
    Once this principal o is changed by national law, or international compact, or perhaps even OECD Guide Lines, the issue requires risk analysis and the outcome might well be to avoid the activity and/or country where the company becomes liable to third parties, unless perhaps if liability insurance is available at a reasonable price.

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