Narratives drive conversations. They serve a framing purpose and offer a lens through which we enter a discussion, make sense of an issue and find meaning in our world. Ultimately, they shape decisions. When it comes to conversations about how people are affected by business conduct and the global economy, a number of distinct narratives are influencing decision-makers today: the development narrative of sustainability; the political narrative of inequality; the economic narrative of stakeholder capitalism; the investment narrative of ESG performance; and the accounting narrative of human and social capital. All of these narratives co-exist, yet they also compete for attention.

In this working paper, Caroline Rees explains why continuing down this siloed approach could result in each of these narratives becoming unnecessarily diluted and falling short of its aims. By contrast, she proposes that the narrative of business of human rights – grounded in global normative standards and a focus on those people most at risk of harm from business practices – can be of central relevance in bringing these other five narratives together, and helping them achieve a goal they all share: a world in which business gets done with respect for the basic dignity and equality of everyone.

This paper is a collaboration between Shift and the Corporate Responsibility Initiative of the Harvard Kennedy School.