Achieving Global Goals: An Interview with Caroline Rees


For this year’s Global Goals Week, from 22 September to 29 September, we spoke with President and Co-founder of Shift, Caroline Rees. In a personal interview, she provides her insight and shares valuable lessons learned in achieving corporate respect for human rights and contributing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Join in on the discussion and registor for our next Unleash Opportunity Webinar: Achieve Sustainable Business Development with the SDGs with Caroline Rees as a guest speaker on 25 September.

What would you advise to a company who wants to start embedding human rights into their business practices?

The starting point is the blueprint for business set out in UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. That’s the authoritative global standard that sets out companies’ responsibility to respect human rights. At the outset, it helps to focus on two things:

  • Be honest and transparent.

Human rights due diligence starts with the honest exercise of looking for where the real risks to people’s basic dignity arise in your operations or supply chain.  As a company, don’t be afraid to know and show where the most severe risks lie – even those you don’t yet know how to tackle. The issues are there, whether you find them or not. If the company’s culture is to bury or ignore them, then your business risk will likely end up escalating. So you want employees and others to feel able to point them out and be supported in finding ways to address them.

  • Be inclusive and collaborative.

Engage wherever possible with those people who are themselves exposed to the negative impacts of company activities or decisions and use that engagement to understand the issues as they experience them. They often know most about why the issues arise and even how they could be avoided.  Then look also for other partners – in government, business or civil society – who can be part of delivering solutions. Often the root causes of impacts are complex, so the solutions won’t always lie in your hands alone. Collaboration can help in sharing resources, open up new ideas, and deliver better solutions.

What advice would you give to a young, ambitious CSR manager that is just getting started in the field?

It can easily seem overwhelming for someone who is just getting started to look at every possible human rights impact that the company may have, particularly if you look at impacts throughout the value chain.

But the Guiding Principles don’t assume you can get it all done at once. No large company can. For sure, you can include all the company’s potential human rights impacts in a code of conduct or training module for staff or suppliers. But when it comes to actions that demand more resource and time, the Guiding Principles tell you to start first with those impacts on people that would be most severe – what we call ‘salient human rights issues’. That’s where you can and should then focus your greatest energies first.

If you can achieve some progress and success on one or two salient issues, and show the feasibility and the benefits to your leadership, then you can start to build the buy-in and support you need to tackle new issues and embed respect for human rights into all areas of the business.

Why are initiatives like Global Goals week important? How can we bring more stakeholders from government, civil society and business together?

The Global Goals are a wonderful framework that capture what we must achieve to have a sustainable future for both our planet and its people. The Global Goals week is a great opportunity to advance the conversations and actions that need to happen and to inject them with further urgency.  

We see a particular dimension to this urgency. Some companies are opting for a pick and choose approach, where they look at the SDGs and contribute to the ones that are the easiest, the most appealing, or already part of what they do. That won’t get us there. Nor, despite their headline-grabbing appeal, will new green or social products alone. There is a huge and absolutely essential contribution to the SDGs that comes from companies tackling negative impacts across their operations and value chains. The outcomes can be hugely positive!

Companies have long recognized that when they reduce their environmental footprint, they make a critical contribution to sustainable development.  We need to apply that same insight and energy when it comes to addressing negative impacts on people. Tackling sexual harassment in the workplace, forced labor and poverty wages in supply chains, and displacement of poor communities from land concessions, to name a few examples, can transform lives and societies for the better, with positive outcomes across multiple SDGs. No development will be sustainable unless we can do this.

We recently put out a compendium of 15 examples of companies and initiatives that are showing great potential at contributing to the SDGs because they are putting people first.


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