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Turning the economy we have into the just and inclusive economy we want

Companies can lead by putting others forward and thrive in doing so.

Metamorphosis concept with butterfly from COVID virus

Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series about the Ceres Roadmap 2030, a vision for sustainable business leadership in this crucial decade. The roadmap provides a 10-year action plan to help companies navigate and thrive in the accelerated transition to a more just, equitable and sustainable economy. You can find the first article here, and the second here.

As COVID-19 spread across the United States last year, meatpackers, farmworkers, grocery clerks and warehouse employees were among the hardest hit. Many were pressured to stay on the job, if not by their employers or the government, then by the need for a paycheck.

The pandemic forced us all to confront the disparities between the haves and the have-nots in this country.

On top of that reckoning came a series of brutal killings of African-Americans engaged in everyday activities of jogging, shopping at a convenience store and sleeping at night at home. These events further shocked our collective consciousness.

A renewed urgency has emerged to address and reject systemic racial and economic injustices that have been ignored too long. And to understand that human rights, racial equity and environmental justice are now squarely business issues.

The call for a just, equitable society and economy is spoken by individuals and institutions alike, by governments — and by companies. But for many companies, examining and improving their performance on these systemic issues is new territory.

How do they adequately analyze their human rights and racial equity practices both within their own operations and throughout their supply chains? How do they assess their impacts on the communities in which they operate?

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights have provided a broad sweep of a vision. But the granular details of how to mark this reality in day-to-day operations of a business can be perplexing. 

Business leadership becomes less about being at the forefront of a movement and more about creating a platform for those communities to meaningfully influence capital markets.

A new 10-year action plan released last year could help. The Ceres Roadmap 2030 details the steps companies can take to build a just and inclusive economy, stabilize the climate and protect water and natural resources in order to address the systemic threats most likely to disrupt the global economy in the coming decade.

The goal of building a just and inclusive economy may seem daunting and even impossible in the current context of racial tension, economic inequity and widespread systemic discrimination. But companies that refuse to embrace environmental justice, to advance equity of economic opportunity and to dismantle the systems that perpetuate systemic racism do so at their own risk. Businesses that continue to hold on to obsolete business models are in danger of losing customers, employees, access to talent and a social license to operate. 

The minimum standard for doing business in the next decade is a respect for the fundamental human rights of employees, both direct and indirect, as well as for people affected by corporate activities. That includes communities in which companies operate, residents of neighboring cities with which they share an aquifer or a transportation system, and consumers who use their products. 

For instance, when the large banking giant Citi makes financing decisions, it evaluates client projects against environmental and social risks using a risk management system. Technology giant Dell Technologies has established human rights-focused goals across all parts of its value chain. That includes engaging supply chain workers, developing diversity and inclusion goals for its own operations and ensuring privacy protection for its customers. 

The Ceres Roadmap 2030 urges companies to recognize the value of an equitable, diverse and inclusive workplace and to provide all employees with equitable opportunity, wages and benefits, and respectful treatment.

For example, health retailer CVS recruits and hires people with disabilities through its Abilities in Abundance Program and seeks out diverse local suppliers from whom to procure products through its Supplier Diversity Program. 

While individual corporate action is important to ensure we achieve the necessary change at the scale required, our framework challenges companies to act beyond their four walls and be strong advocates for changing the institutions and government policies that perpetuate inequities and injustices. 

In 2020, we saw some companies take laudable steps in those directions. Netflix, Levi Strauss and Merck spoke out against police brutality. The Business Roundtable and many of its member companies, such as Apple and Facebook, condemned the government program that separated immigrant children from their parents at the border or that demonstrated bias against transgender people. And other organizations, Mars and Inditex, called for enhanced government regulation on human rights and business activities to level the playing field.

But for every step forward, we saw just as many critical missteps by companies undermining our shot at a just and inclusive economy. Most notably, the passage of Proposition 22 in California, which exempted Uber from having to classify drivers as employees, and the slow creep of similar legislative proposals and referenda to other states dealt a decisive blow to gig workers who are the epitome of a 21st-century workforce but lack even 20th-century worker benefits and protections. 

Unquestionably, 2020 was an unprecedented and devastating year in so many ways. The toll of human suffering beyond most imaginations was only made worse by political and racial divides that exacerbated rather than healed the pain experienced by so many. 

Corporations have a responsibility to take the experiences of the last year and learn from them.

As we listen to the voices of frontline communities whose life and livelihood require that we reverse the climate crisis, advance economic and racial justice and protect precious natural resources, business leadership becomes less about being at the forefront of a movement and more about creating a platform for those communities to meaningfully influence capital markets. It truly is a moment of opportunity for business and the planet. Companies can lead by putting others forward, and thrive in doing so.

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