How elephants can dance: Unilever’s human rights report sets a new benchmark for business

Commentary, 30 June 2015

By John Morrison, Chief Executive, IHRB

For a company that started out in the 1880s selling the world’s first branded soap made of the oil from pine kernels, Unilever plc. has come a long way. Today, Unilever has a global reach, and many of us likely use one or more of its products at some point each day.

Therefore, in significant ways we are all contributing to the company’s performance and should have an interest in its new report on human rights – the first of its kind to comprehensively follow the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework.

There have been other moments like this, when a company moves the business and human rights agenda forward through its own public reporting. For example, in 2001 when BP disclosed the results of its human rights impact assessment in West Papua, Indonesia, in 2004 when The Gap produced a ground-breaking Social Report, and in 2013 when Safaricom disclosed how it was fighting hate speech surrounding Kenyan elections and Coca-Cola reported on its efforts to respect human rights in Myanmar.

This is no blanket commendation for any of these companies. Unilever’s new report is certainly another one of those landmarks in disclosure. In fact, I have been very critical of some of BP’s decisions over recent years (not least surrounding the Gulf of Mexico) and also wish Gap had joined the Accord in Bangladesh, but this does not take away from the fact that at the time, these companies showed real leadership through their efforts to advance public reporting on human rights issues.

Given the EU’s recent non-financial reporting requirement concerning its 6,000 largest publicly listed companies, which certainly includes Unilever, today’s report will inevitably be seen as a benchmark. This requirement, as well as others wordwide, will help ensure that human rights reporting is now here to stay.

What makes Unilever’s report so special? A number of aspects are of particular importance in my view:

  • First, the report makes explicit the process the company went through to decide which were its most salient human rights impacts – not just from the perspective of the company but from the perspective of those who may be impacted by its activities.

  • Second, some of these impacts are well outside of the company’s direct control and address more systemic issues. For me this is the most fundamental leadership point – a company proactively flagging some of its greatest social risks and how it is attempting to either prevent or mitigate them. This is “know and show” in action – something The Gap did back in 2004 and which stood them in good stead when child labour was found in their supply chain near Delhi. Companies cannot eliminate all risk, as they say, “bad things will still happen to good companies.” As with health and safety, the aim is to get companies to undertake adequate due diligence, prevention and mitigation to reduce risk as much as possible, and also to disclose this publicly. Unilever has done this.

  • Third, I am especially pleased to see the issue of workplace harassment being given particular prominence in the report and in particular the section dedicated to Kericho in Kenya. The Unilever tea plantation – a large component of PG Tips or Lipton Tea – is one of the country’s largest private sector employers – a vast area of rolling hills, hedgerows of tea bushes interspersed with eucalyptus groves (used in the drying process) and accommodation for the tens of thousands of workers. The nature of sexual and other harassment faced by some female employees came as a shock to the company and it has taken active steps to address this. Today, Unilever has publicly disclosed some information concerning the issue and this matters. It matters for those fighting for justice on East Africa’s tea plantations and shines a light on the much wider issue of sexual harassment in agriculture that is truly global – from the USA to India.  Sexual violence in global supply chains has been very much ignored for too long, as our former Board Member Margot Wallstrom (now the Foreign Minister of Sweden) has often stated.

  • Finally, it perhaps goes without saying, but in Paul Polman – Unilever actually has a CEO who understands the value of human rights to his company. This is reflected throughout the management structure – human rights are not siloed into the portfolio of an overworked and underpaid CSR manager and the report is evidence of this fact.

With all of these encouraging steps in mind, it should be noted as well that the report could have gone further. This is signalled by Marcela Maubens and her team in the report itself. If it were down to me, I would like to see greater consideration of the following in years to come:

  • Move the report beyond narrative by setting concrete indicators of human rights performance that can be benchmarked and ranked by stakeholders, in particular investors. We hope the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark project that we and other partner organisations are developing will help here.

  • Consider salient issues beyond the supply chain. While it is true that the ‘kingdom of the supply chain’ will always dominate a company such as Unilever, which holds many consumer-facing brands – there must be some salient issues there too: such as health, women’s empowerment, data protection and so on.

  • Develop further the company’s distinction between rights-holders and other types of stakeholders and the nature of the social contract between rights-holders and a company such as Unilever. What expectations can workers, suppliers and consumers have?

So congratulations to all at Unilever and also to Caroline Rees, another former IHRB Board Member, and her team at Shift for the excellent ongoing work on the UN Guiding Principles Human Rights Reporting Framework. I was working with Anita and Gordon Roddick at The Body Shop when Unilever acquired Ben and Jerry’s in 2001 – we were worried that the elephant would soon tread on the mouse. If anything, the past 14 years have been a story about how mice can inspire elephants to dance.

Further Reading:

Unilever takes a step forward -, July 3rd, 2015

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