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How the SDGs can help remove child labor from supply chains

This article originally appeared at Corporate Citizenship as part of its "Leader Insights Series: Business Action on the Sustainable Development Goals," written by leaders from across industries and sectors. The full series appears here 

The private sector can help achieve the SDGs by driving inclusive economic growth, creating decent jobs, increasing access to essential services and developing innovative products that meet social needs. An approach that harnesses core business operations and supply chains is essential if we are to deliver a framework that includes vast ambitions ranging from ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against children, to achieving full and productive employment and decent work for all.

There is a risk, however, that the sheer number of SDG targets (169) could encourage an outdated approach to CSR, where companies might cherry-pick the goals to which they want to contribute.

This is not to suggest that businesses should address all goals, but instead they should prioritize action according to the salience of the impacts that their business has on people. This requires a shift away from the traditional approach to materiality within corporate sustainability that focusses on impact or risk of stakeholder concerns on the business.

It’s by design rather than luck that the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (PDF), and their central concept of human rights due diligence, provide a blueprint for how to operationalize that shift. The due diligence process of identifying, preventing, mitigating and accounting for impacts on human and child rights across business operations and supply chains should result in a tangible action plan for a business, which then can be cross-referenced with SDG targets.

While full implementation of the guiding principles on the part of businesses would contribute greatly to the achievement of the SDGs, if we are to realize the transformational change implied by the goals, there needs to be much more than a mapping exercise of existing commitments (and this goes for both public and private sectors).

New trends on SDG 17: Partnerships

We have certainly seen an appetite to engage on the SDGs, an immediate interest in Goal 17 and a recognition that the goals can help encourage cross-sector collaboration. SDG 17 on partnerships represents an opportunity to brigade collaborative action on human and child rights challenges further down complex supply chains.

Most businesses we work with at Unicef UK understand the need to address impacts on children that their business either cause or contribute to. We see more challenges with respect to those issues that a business is linked to by a business relationship. 

While businesses ought to factor the cost of ensuring human and child rights in supply chains into purchasing practices, millennial consumers must expect to do the same.

For a tour operator or travel agent, this might mean being linked to child labor via the fruit and vegetable supply chain in the hotels and accommodation that they offer to their customers, or to the children selling trinkets to hotel guests on the beach; for a consumer goods company with supply chains heavily reliant on migrant workers, there may be a link to exploitative conditions characterized by employers withholding employee passports or workers paying upfront fees to secure a job.

In any of these scenarios, the problems faced are deeply embedded, many tiers down the supply chain, are often undetected by ethical auditing processes and reflect systemic flaws and challenging cultural norms. They are not problems that businesses can face down on their own and there may be little reward in doing so. They demand collective, multi-stakeholder action, which the energy behind the SDGs can catalyze.

How can businesses and NGOs collaborate on the SDGs?

Be transparent about the challenges faced in business operations and supply chains and demonstrate a willingness to assess how your own company’s business model, purchasing practices and other actions can contribute to these issues. Doing so should result in recognition on the part of civil society actors that such issues are systemic and that a will to affect change must be met by constructive criticism rather than knee-jerk condemnation.

Such openness may result in sector specific partnerships — for instance in the travel and tourism industry to determine the actions that might be considered as "policies to promote sustainable tourism" under target 8.9. Alternatively, cross-sector partnerships (the creation of which hits various targets under Goal 17) could focus on specific issues. 

Alternatively, cross-sector partnerships (the creation of which hits various targets under Goal 17) could focus on specific issues. The Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children is one example of an initiative that has been established to address a specific target within the SDGs (16.2), and could form the basis for business collaboration to define the policies and practices that could end entrenched problems within supply chains, such as trafficking and exploitation of children.

All of this is not to devalue traditional social investment approaches to engaging with NGOs. But these also can be more effective if shaped by high-quality human rights due diligence process.

This is very clear from the experience of the telecoms company Millicom. After conducting a child rights impact assessment across its supply chain with Unicef, birth registration was identified as a significant blocker to children in their supply chain realizing their rights. As a result, Millicom supported the creation of a new SMS service in Tanzania that allows parents to register new births as well as those of children under 5 on any mobile phone, straight to a centrally run database.

Opportunities for business

The SDGs represent the biggest opportunity to scale action on business and child rights since the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights unanimously were endorsed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2011. The UNGPs require engagement with human rights experts, who tend to reside in NGOs.

While business and human rights is often viewed as a negative "do no harm" agenda, the UNGPs and their emphasis on business responsibility throughout the supply chain are truly innovative and the consensus garnered behind them represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity for collaboration between business, civil society and government.

Young investors are more than twice as likely as their older counterparts to want their investments screened based on environmental, social and governance factors.

More specifically, the SDGs offer a platform for more collaboration between business and civil society on advocacy towards government where human and child rights are not being upheld. There are, of course, some instances where conditions in countries where global value chains are based mean that companies cannot act unilaterally. In these instances, collaborative advocacy with competitors and others can enhance social impact. A good example of this is when H&M and other major retailers lobbied the Cambodian government to raise wages in the garment sector.

Much has been made of the need for an "enabling environment for business" in the SDGs. Perhaps companies advocating for regulation to raise standards around some of the most intractable rights issues in global supply chains suggests that businesses have a role in shaping that environment for the better.

Leadership to go beyond 'business as usual'

As consumers, millennials need to recognize that goods and services that are produced to higher ethical standards can result in higher prices. While businesses ought to factor the cost of ensuring human and child rights in supply chains into purchasing practices, millennial consumers must expect to do the same. 

Mechanisms such as the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark increasingly offer consumers the information to buy from businesses according to performance on supply chain challenges. What’s more, government is encouraging consumers to do so, with the Home Office Guidance to the Modern Slavery Act explicitly calling for consumer pressure on brands that do not fully adhere to the requirement to set out the steps being taken to address slavery and trafficking in supply chains.

This trend towards more responsible consumerism appears to be reflected in the investor community, particularly amongst younger investors. Evidence suggests that young investors are more than twice as likely as their older counterparts to want their investments screened based on environmental, social and governance factors by their wealth management providers. This growing interest in responsible investment depends on the disclosure of due diligence and management tools that allows investors to move capital towards more sustainable, responsible organizations and strengthen the long-term ethical sustainability of the financial system.

For technology-savvy millennial consumers, employees and investors, transparency on business performance is an expectation and is key to unlocking their influence and resources in pursuit of the SDGs.

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