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Article | Jan 21, 2019

Attention on human rights in large supply chains

The 7th Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights brought some 2500 corporate and governmental representatives to Geneva to discuss human rights issues. This year´s forum concentrated especially on the responsibility of large supply chains.

The United Nations adopted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011. A central message of the guideline is that all businesses have an independent responsibility to respect human rights.

“After the introduction of the principles in 2011 we recognized the need to increase our understanding of human rights risks and assessment of impacts to people within our operational environment,” explains Nina Norjama, Social Responsibility Director, UPM.

“It’s clear that we cannot manage assessments solely from the business perspective. We need a comprehensive understanding of how different raw material supply chains are linked together, and how they impact the health and safety of workers, the environment, and local communities. That’s what respecting human rights calls from us,” she adds.

National governments are primarily responsible for setting up effective policies and regulation practices to protect all human rights, but regardless of how states are performing in their obligation, business enterprises are required to respect human rights.

“In fact, in contexts where governments are failing in their obligation, business enterprises need to take additional care to ensure that they are not involved in human rights abuses,” addressed Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in his opening remarks.

Understanding value chains

At the forum Norjama took the stage to share her views how UPM is following the due diligence and assessing human rights risks a very extensive supply chain.

UPM has roughly 25 000 suppliers in 75 countries, accounting for a combined spend of approximately seven billion euros. Norjama points out that the most challenging part is evaluating risks associated with the further tiers of the supply chain.

“We have established very solid practices for sourcing wood sustainably and knowing its origin. Other raw materials like chemicals and pigments form however another significant part of our supply chain,” she describes.

“When conducting our human rights due diligence in the supply chain we look at the country risk, the risk profile of different commodities and also the complexity of the supply chain. Our aim is to understand where the most salient impacts to people occur, so that we can focus our improvements on that part of the chain,” she explains.

In addition to conducting in-house audits and assessments, UPM has recently joined the chemical industry’s Together for Sustainability (TfS) initiative to increase the efficiency of its risk assessments and improvement impacts.

UPM carries out roughly 100 company-driven audits per year, while the TfS network completes approximately 300 audits annually. “The advantage of TfS membership comes from sharing the audit results across the network. We have already discovered some TfS-audited suppliers that are also on our list, so we can use TfS resources to our advantage,” she notes.

“The procedure also benefits suppliers as they can reach all TfS companies through one assessment and auditing process,” Norjama adds.

Leverage from businesses

Businesses are increasingly using their influencing and leverage to promote respect for human rights through their business partnerships. The main driver for the change still is that enterprises will understand why respecting human rights and sustainability principles makes good business sense.

“When companies are focusing on improving work safety and respecting regular working hours, they will also benefit in the form of decreased accident rates and absences due to work-related illnesses as well as increased profitability,” reflects Norjama.

Not only legislators but also investors and other stakeholders are putting more pressure on companies to actively address the issue. “I have noticed here at the UN Forum that stakeholder groups follow and participate intensively in the discussions,” she says.

The UN Human Rights Council established the Forum to serve as a global platform for stakeholders to promote dialogue and cooperation on issues linked to subject. The forum is gathering all the most important players influencing in this field.

For the first time a third of the participants come from the private sector.

“For example, we had extra UN Global Compact Action Platform meeting during the Forum, as many of our members were already here. This as evidence that companies are paying more attention to human rights and the due diligence principle of preventing negative impacts on people,” Norjama concludes.

Vesa Puoskari