The ESG News Review: Human rights: ESG’s slow burner

In a week when, frankly, there has not been a lot of new news about ESG issues, one piece stood out for the depth of its analysis around a reputation driver that spends far less time in the limelight than you might expect.

Human rights is, by the definitions of practically all ESG frameworks, a social issue that companies should be understanding their risks around and taking positive action to tackle.

Yet as many large companies go to extensive efforts to be transparent, comprehensive and evidence-based in reducing carbon emissions, few have set out such a clear path on their goals in addressing rights and how they tangle with ownership, investment, partnership and interests around the world. Just as carbon requires a highly-scientific approach and detailed understanding of supply chains, so human rights requires a constant geopolitical lens, and is often a complex factor to unearth and set goals around. Although in other cases, it may of course be very simple.

This week’s Financial Times Big Read on human rights and ESG investing aimed to cast light on countries and regimes that many companies may shy away from discussing publicly, but which can be part and parcel of a global business.

It tackled issues including the part that sovereign wealth funds play, investments in emerging markets and how blind eyes can be turned to abuses.

“The dilemma over human rights exposes an uncomfortable tension at the heart of the ESG boom. Is all the effort spent measuring and evaluating “ESG factors” simply a way to improve returns by avoiding some hitherto under-appreciated risks? Or is investing more “sustainably” an end in itself?” said the FT.

The climate crisis is rightly a central focus for many ESG agendas, hence the acute goals many businesses have set. But while social goals, such as around diversity and inclusion, and community engagement, have also grown in focus, human rights is perhaps the big, dark cloud on the horizon for corporate ESG programmes. As we see more articles like this week’s FT piece raise the spectre, expect to see more focus on it, even if the transformation and commitments required are complicated and long-term. Human rights looks to be the slow-burner of contentious ESG factors that just may start to heat up quickly, and force an integrated response from the top of the business, with communications strategy central.

As this recent World Economic Forum piece put it: “Remedying this is more than a box-ticking exercise or just the appearance of individuals in the boardroom: it is about ensuring that the knowledge of human rights risks is adequately understood, and that the board has the experience, skills and independence to act upon this.”

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at BOLDT.

If you haven't heard, PRmoment has launched The ESG Awards, with categories linked to the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

This is a new weekly ESG column on PRmoment. The column will review the biggest ESG stories of the week, from a communications perspective. Please subscribe by completing the form below.

ESG Awards