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UN Global Compact CEO encourages more 'due diligence' on human rights

Sanda Ojiambo is calling on her private-sector experiences to encourage stronger social justice policies and meaningful public-private partnerships.

Sanda Ojiambo, CEO and executive director of the UN Global Compact

Sanda Ojiambo, CEO and executive director of the United Nations Global Compact. Photo: United Nations

Sanda Ojiambo thinks businesses can thrive while upholding values that are becoming increasingly important to consumers and stakeholders. And as CEO and executive director of the United Nations Global Compact, she is at the helm of a movement navigating that intersection of business growth and honoring social justice movements. 

During GreenBiz 21 last week, Ojiambo spoke about the need for companies to have a mission-driven response to social issues in order to contribute to an equitable and resilient recovery from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. She credited her experience in both the private and public sector for her ability to brainstorm potential solutions to inequality that involve both. 

"There has to be an ‘all of’ sector, a multi-sectoral approach to driving this [social] change," Ojiambo said during a keynote conversation. "Each time I'm in a different sector, there's different views, different challenges and certainly different opportunities." 

She called 2020 an "incredible year" that demonstrated how business leaders can step up to embody their company’s social mission statements, pointing to new partnerships created to support COVID relief. She pointed out that necessity had bred innovation across e-commerce, online learning and even vaccine production.

More than 90% of the 169 targets of the SDGs are linked to international human rights and labor standards.

"Businesses have shifted into sanitizers, essential production, the banking industry reshaped its views on credit both for retail and institutions… I have to say business truly has stepped up," Ojiambo said. 

She pointed out that though the pandemic had put social justice in the center of some innovation and mobilization efforts of large businesses, much work is required to address the rise of poverty and educational gaps caused by the economic downturn. Despite some wins for big business, Ojiambo reminded the GreenBiz 21 audience that many small businesses had closed, creating higher rates of unemployment. 

A social imperative to speak up

Business members of the UN Global Compact commit to universal principles including the idea that companies should support the protection of internationally recognized human rights. Ojiambo said businesses cannot avoid discussing social issues such as the right to employment, health and safety in the workplace because they play a role in shaping access to those rights. 

"More than 90 percent of the 169 targets of the [United Nations Sustainable Development Goals] are linked to international human rights and labor standards," Ojiambo elaborated. "So it's truly impossible for business, indeed anyone, to deliver on the Global Goals without making sure that human rights are front and center."

Businesses are falling behind

Ojiambo emphasized that the UN Global Compact’s guiding principles are one way to ensure more businesses have a "due diligence" process that accounts for potential human rights risks caused by a business. Corporations also should have a commitment followed by a policy that will remedy any risks caused by business practices and prevent further risks in the future. (To hear more, listen to Episode 255 of GreenBiz 350.)

She worries that many businesses have not created prevention measures beyond stating their commitment to human rights and sustainability. 

"There’s a big gap between aspiration, policy and action," she said. 

There’s a big gap between aspiration, policy and action.

An urgent priority

According to Ojiambo, one key social justice issue businesses should put more efforts towards addressing is racial justice. She explained that racial inequality often occurs when other key human rights are being denied. Because racism is a systemic issue, addressing racism will require businesses to be introspective and proactively engaged in changing systems of racism, she said. 

"This is definitely not an activity or an event, it is a long-term process. And I think that companies must be able to embark on this journey with transparency, with openness — being bold and being candid to really address race issues," Ojiambo said. 

Ojiambo also pointed to how businesses could use social justice policies to address environmental justice issues and how both issues intersect with public health. 

"The health response needs to be seen in the bigger context of the overall response and recovery around COVID — just to ensure, as I always say that these practices and these innovations that have taken place over time continue to be environmentally sound," she explained. 

Message of hope?

Despite some gaps in addressing social justice issues and sustainability, Ojiambo said it was inspiring to see businesses that have voluntarily used their platforms and resources to address a number of issues throughout 2020. 

For example, Starbucks gave workers hazard pay during the first months of the pandemic and gave them the option to have paid time off if they felt they had been exposed to the virus. And software company Salesforce did not lay off workers. CEO Marc Benioff took to Twitter to challenge other companies to avoid layoffs for at least 90 days last year. 

Ojiambo’s hopefulness that businesses will continue to step up to address social issues is propelled by seeing how governments and the private sector are moving to address societal problems. 

"I think there's a lot evolving around us. And I do hope that this world of unusual partnerships continues, not only for emergencies, but actually for a better way of doing business and thriving forward," she said. 

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