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Respect human rights Strategy and goals

In our own operations, and through all our business relationships, everything we do is underpinned by a deep and unfaltering commitment to respect and promote all internationally recognised human rights.

This issue relates to the following Sustainable Development Goals

  • Good health and well-being
  • Decent work and economic growth
  • Reduced inequalities

Average read time: 12 minutes

The foundation of a fairer, more inclusive society

The world we want to see will be a fairer, more socially inclusive one – and that can only be achieved if human rights are respected, everywhere.

Woman wearing a Unilever t-shirt at our factory in Brazil

Respect for human rights is a basic, fundamental requirement for our business. But it’s also an enabler. It helps drive the changes we want to see to create a fairer society – changes we describe in Raise living standards and Equity, diversity and inclusion. And it’s key to bringing about equity, because it tackles the underlying, often systemic inequalities in opportunity and access that hold people back.

How we define human rights

In line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011), we base our human rights commitment and policy on:

  • the International Bill of Human Rights (which, in addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), consists of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and
  • the principles concerning fundamental rights set out in the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

We also support the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Respecting human rights and tackling abuses

Despite our commitment to respecting human rights, we know that human rights abuses exist in the sectors and markets in which we operate – and at times, in our own value chain. These abuses are unacceptable – and we're determined to address them.

We’re tackling issues and upholding and promoting human rights in three main ways.

First, by upholding our values and standards and embedding respect for human rights across our own business.

Second, by embedding respect for human rights in our relationships with our suppliers and other business partners, so that it underpins how our products are sourced, made and sold. Our Responsible Sourcing Policy (RSP) and Responsible Business Partner Policy (RBPP) are key to this work. Also key is our commitment to ensuring that workers who directly provide us with goods and services receive a living wage or income.

And last but not least, our approach includes advocating the respect and promotion of human rights and working with others to drive change, including through initiatives such as the UN Global Compact, the Consumer Goods Forum and the Institute for Human Rights and Business. This work is outlined below, and in our Human Rights Report 2020.

Business has to take action to tackle the issues of unfairness and exploitation, and Unilever is setting a course for the future that is underpinned by an unfaltering commitment to respecting human rights.

Rachel Cowburn-Walden, our Human Rights Stewardship Director

Our goals

Our latest goals build on the targets we set through the Fairness in the Workplace pillar of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (PDF 8.02MB), namely to advance human rights across our operations and extended supply chain, create a framework for fair compensation and improve employee health and safety. They will guide our actions from 2021 onwards.

Continue to respect and promote human rights and the effective implementation of the UN Guiding Principles across our operations and in our business relationships.

We endorsed the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) in 2011. Our Human Rights Report 2020 describes our progress in embedding respect for human rights across our business.

100% of suppliers to comply with our Responsible Sourcing Policy.

We launched our Responsible Sourcing Policy (RSP) in 2014 and updated it in 2017. It includes 12 fundamental principles, which cover a range of human rights. We keep it under review to ensure it keeps driving positive change, so we’re planning to refresh it in 2021 with an expanded focus on climate and nature.

Identifying and acting on salient issues

Our commitment to addressing human rights impacts

If through our business operations we have caused or contributed to a negative human rights impact, then we will address this, including by working with our suppliers and other business partners or through wider initiatives.

Our approach is in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). We use the UNGPs to underpin our own high standards of corporate behaviour: they help us to identify and tackle systemic causes of abuse, and to work collaboratively and openly with others.

Since endorsing the UNGPs in 2011, we've taken a phased approach to analysing our risks and opportunities and embedding respect for human rights into everything we do. This crucial work has meant we’re able to move from 'doing no harm', to 'doing good'.

Following the UNGPs has helped us focus on our ‘salient’ human rights issues (PDF 9.45MB) – that is, those issues that are at risk of the most severe negative impacts through our activities or business relationships.

Leading the way through collaborative action

As well as taking direct action to address human rights issues in our value chain, we’re working with others to help make the lasting, systemic changes needed to make a positive difference.

Partnerships with other companies, labour and civil society organisations and NGOs, as well as multinational initiatives – give us opportunities to increase our positive impact. By drawing on the research, access, expertise and scale of our stakeholders and partners, we can learn more, make better decisions and drive change faster.

Key collaborations driving change

Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) Social Sustainability Committee: drives global collaboration between retailers and manufacturers in identifying and tackling key social sustainability issues such as the eradication of forced labour. We are members of CGF and participate actively in its committees including the Human Rights Coalition – Working to End Forced Labour and the Sustainable Supply Chain Initiative (SSCI), focused on providing clear guidance to buyers and suppliers in the consumer goods industry on third-party auditing and certification schemes that cover sustainability requirements and apply relevant governance and verification.

World Economic Forum (WEF): we sit on the WEF Global Future Councils on: Human Rights; Equity and Social Justice; Future of Work; Transparency and Anti-corruption. We have worked with the WEF to incorporate human rights considerations into mainstream discussions, including those of other WEF councils.

AIM-PROGRESS: promotes responsible sourcing practices and sustainable supply chains for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) manufacturers with common suppliers. We are members of the Human Rights Steering Group, providing strategic direction to the organisation.

Institute for Human Rights and Business: we were a founding member of the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, which works towards the eradication of recruitment fees and related costs and the responsible recruitment of migrant workers.

Business for Inclusive Growth (B4IG): we are members of the working groups on Building an inclusive recovery; Inclusive sourcing; and Impact measurement.

For more details of these and other collaborations, see our Human Rights Report 2020.

Collaboration in action: tackling forced labour

Every worker should have freedom of movement.

No worker should pay for a job.

No worker should be indebted or coerced to work.

These are the Priority Industry Principles agreed by the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), and as members of the CGF's Social Sustainability Committee, we support both them and the CGF's resolution to fight forced labour.

We support this work through internal and external training, including workshops with our suppliers that include a focus on forced labour. We continue to work with our suppliers to identify and address existing and emerging issues through impact assessments, capacity building and stronger engagement with workers.

Making sure 'the employer pays'

We work on the eradication of forced labour through a number of other partnerships too, including the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, which is facilitated by the Institute for Human Rights and Business.

The Leadership Group focuses on promoting ethical recruitment – the ‘employer pays’ principle, specifying that no workers should pay for a job – and combating the exploitation of migrant workers. As part of the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, we’ve created an enhanced vetting process for our employment agencies, and an internal policy on the sustainable employment of temporary workers.

A strong policy framework underpins our work

Our policy framework is an essential basis for embedding human rights into our business. It helps us set clear and consistent expectations and allows us to drive compliance and positive behaviour that’s aligned with our values.

Our policies enable our employees to work with partners, governments, community leaders and other stakeholders to push standards and boundaries where needed, and help us operationalise the UNGPs. Our full policy framework is described in our Human Rights Report 2020; we’ve listed all our policies in our Sustainability Reporting Centre.

Willing to listen, learn and improve

We welcome stakeholders who contact us with their concerns and aim to be open in our response.

We realise that in running a business of the size and scale of Unilever, we will not always get things right. We want to hear from people who have concerns, learn from our mistakes and make improvements that help us make a positive social impact. It’s an approach that’s embedded in our business values.

Providing grievance mechanisms and access to remedy

A core element of our strategy is providing ways for people to raise human rights issues with us, and ensuring that those issues can be addressed – what’s known as 'access to remedy'.

Grievance mechanisms play a critical role in opening channels for dialogue, problem solving, and investigation. They can also help identify country-specific solutions and pre-emptive action.

We encourage individuals and communities to raise any concerns with us directly. On occasions where they feel they aren't able to do this, we would never seek to impede access to state-based judicial or non-judicial mechanisms for those who feel human rights have been impacted, and aim to co-operate as required with competent authorities in investigating or adjudicating alleged human rights impacts.

We’ve strengthened our grievance mechanisms and the ways in which people can gain access to remedy. That includes through our Code of Business Principles procedures, and through our Code Support Line, which is open to third parties. Our RSP includes information on grievance mechanisms (PDF 8.25MB), and our specific palm oil grievance mechanism is open to anyone in our palm oil value chain. More detail on the way people in our business and value chain can speak up is described in Human rights in our extended value chain, and in Business integrity.

Supporting human rights defenders

A wide range of individuals and organisations are engaged in the global effort to advance human rights. We recognise that there is increasing pressure and insecurity for human rights defenders, including trade unionists. We're committed to supporting them.

As a matter of policy, we do not tolerate threats, intimidation, physical or legal attacks against human rights defenders in relation to our operations.

Led from the top: our human rights governance

Our human rights governance is led from the top, overseen by our CEO and supported by our Unilever Leadership Executive (ULE), the most senior leaders of our business. As well as providing strategic direction, the ULE is consulted on human rights issues when the severity of an actual or potential impact is high, where a business-critical decision needs to be taken, or where substantial financial investment may be needed to address an impact. Additional Board-level oversight is provided by the Corporate Responsibility Committee.

At a strategic and operational level, Unilever’s human rights work is led by our Global Vice President, Integrated Social Sustainability. Monitoring third-party compliance to the standards of our Responsible Sourcing Policy (RSP) is delivered by our Legal – Business Integrity function. Our Integrated Social Sustainability team focuses on addressing the root causes of endemic business and human rights issues and social impact programmes, and on working with our suppliers on critical and endemic issues to move from good to best practice.

Our Unilever Sustainability Advisory Council

The Unilever Sustainability Advisory Council comprises independent external specialists in sustainability who guide and critique the development of our strategy.

For several years we were privileged to have the late Professor John Ruggie as one of our advisers. John Ruggie was the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business & Human Rights from 2005-2011. He created the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights, adopted unanimously by the Human Rights Council, which now constitute the global standard in this area.

Looking to the future

Human rights, and our work to embed and promote respect for them, cannot be separated from the changing economic and political conditions in our markets. New social challenges continue to arise, and we need to keep innovating to meet them.

For example, the use of technology – and in particular digital – can bring further transparency and agility to identify the issues that workers are facing, so that we can focus on remediation, prevention and best practices. But we need to ensure that technological development and automation don’t undermine the rights of workers.

A robotic arm selects a cardboard package from a stack in a warehouse

The plastic economy is another case in point. While the environmental consequences of plastic use are all too clear, there is a social impact too: plastic is frequently collected by people working in the informal economy who don’t earn adequate wages or receive social benefits. To help address this, we’re innovating new business models to ensure that people involved in this industry make a living wage. Our approaches to plastic and automation are both described in our Human Rights Report 2020 (PDF 7.13MB).

Addressing salient human rights issues in our value chain helps us build a more resilient business. We’ll continue to make both the moral and the business case for this, while strengthening our internal capability, and the capability of our suppliers and other business partners to own and self-manage issues.

More than ever, it’s critical that whether tackling new challenges or continuing to address the root causes of existing ones, we always take a human rights lens to everything we do.