This open letter was authored by Shift Chair John Ruggie and sent to the heads of the Global Commission on Business and Sustainable Development (now called the Business and Sustainable Development Commission). It discusses the relationship between the Guiding Principles and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Also see: Our November 2016 position paper commissioned by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, which examines the Guiding Principles-SDGs connection


Mark Malloch-Brown, Co-Chair
Paul Polman, Co-Chair
Peter Bakker, Commissioner
Global Commission on Business and Sustainable Development

February 16, 2016

Dear Mark, Paul and Peter,

I was delighted to learn about the creation of the Global Commission on Business and Sustainable Development and warmly welcome your continuing leadership in shaping the business community’s role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. It is heartening to see the positive response of so many business executives in support of this critical agenda.

But I am writing to call to your attention a particular risk I see in the current business discourse around the SDGs, in the hope that you may be able to turn it instead into the opportunity it should be: companies’ social development initiatives cannot substitute for measures to address the negative human rights impacts their operations and relationships may have.

Companies have long embraced the idea that successful development and prosperity depend in part on reducing the negative environmental impacts of business activities. Indeed, companies find positive ways to frame their impact-reducing targets and activities to gain customers and motivate their employees.

However, when it comes to the social side of the development picture too many companies are quick to jump to promotional initiatives, skipping the essential starting point of reducing negative impacts on people associated with their own business activities and value chains.

As you know, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which I authored, address exactly this impact­ reducing aspect of social development. Where people’s human rights are not fully respected, their ability to enjoy the fruits of development are much reduced, and the disparities between the poor and most vulnerable and the rest of society only grow.

By contrast, where companies focus resources on reducing the risks to people’s human rights along their value chains, they not only reduce harm but also help advance development. Workers and communities are better equipped to claim their rights; living wages support families and enable the education of children; communities that are engaged as partners and provided due process and compensation for impacts on their land and resources are better able to sustain and direct their own livelihoods; women and girls free of sexual harassment and discrimination can reach their economic potential, and so forth. None of this is new to you, of course. But it can be easily forgotten by others.

My point here is not one of semantics. Too many companies today put resources into social development initiatives that are worthy on their face, while ignoring serious negative impacts on people in their own operations and value chains. So they end up giving with one hand while taking away – or enabling others to do so – with the other. This is not a pathway to sustainable development.

Therefore, we need a discourse on the social aspect of the SDGs that mirrors the discourse on the environmental side. The starting point must be a reduction in negative human rights impacts associated with core business activities. The UN Guiding Principles provide the standard for achieving this and there is fast-growing experience of what it means to translate them into practice across different sectors and contexts.

As with environmental risk reduction, respect for human rights can and should be communicated in ways that motivate staff and support strong corporate reputations, as Unilever’s 2015 human rights report Enhancing Livelihoods, Advancing Human Rights helps demonstrate. Successful human rights risk management strategies reduce risks to the business — be it operational, reputational, financial or legal risk. They also create real and growing opportunities to find new customers, investors, partners and employees.

In sum, we have a tremendous opportunity now to recast this aspect of the business discourse around sustainable development as we begin the task of achieving the SDGs. I hope you can help us, through your own leadership, to make sure that respect for human rights becomes firmly recognized as the starting point for all companies in advancing social development, and integral to how we measure success.

Yours truly,

John Ruggie
Chair of Shift
Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
Former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Business and Human Rights