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Our salient human rights issues

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As we mark Human Rights Day 2023, we continue our commitment to progressing respect for human rights across our value chain - today and every day. You can read more about some of our work here: Strategy and goals, Human rights in our operations, Human rights in our value chain.

Identifying our salient human rights issues has helped us prioritise how we address human rights impacts across our operations and extended supply chain.

Two men in blue overalls talking to each other at our factory in China

What do we mean by 'salient human rights issues'?

How does a business like ours work out where it should focus its efforts to have a positive impact – and prevent the most negative impacts – when it comes to human rights?

That's the rationale behind identifying our salient human rights issues, defined by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) as 'the human rights that are at risk of the most severe negative impacts through a company’s activities or business relationships'.

When we endorsed the UNGPs, we committed to identifying our salient human rights issues. In 2015, we identified eight salient issues: discrimination; fair wages; forced labour; freedom of association; harassment; health & safety; land rights and working hours. In 2023, we completed an external review process, working with human rights management consultancy Twentyfifty, and involving consultation within and beyond our business to assess both existing and emerging human rights issues. As a result, whilst some of our salient issues remain the same, we have updated the focus of others.

Our updated salient human rights issues are: bullying and harassment; discrimination; fair wages and income; forced labour; freedom of association and collective bargaining; health; land rights (including indigenous rights) and working hours. Each of these issues will be viewed through the lenses of gender and climate impact to understand the influence that these have on access to human rights.

An illustration showing a diverse group of people speaking about our eight salient human rights issues.

Rationale for our changes

Changes to our salient human rights issues have mostly been to update the framing of the issue. For example:

  • Bullying and harassment has been updated to mark the distinction between these two types of behaviour.
  • Health has been updated to broaden the issue from just occupational health and safety (which is still critical), to include the right to a healthy environment and other issues such as right to water and mental health.
  • Fair wage and income has been expanded to reflect and recognise the variety of ways that people across our value chain make their living.

In other cases, we are being more specific about the individual issue or group that we are talking about, for example with land rights (including indigenous rights).

We are formally recognising the importance of considering gender and climate impact in our approach to addressing these issues by introducing these two lenses through which our salient human rights issues will be considered.

Unilever is committed to respecting and promoting women’s rights and applying a gender lens is already integral to the way we address our salient issues. However, we are now formally recognising the importance of this within our global list of salient human rights issues.

And, given the inseparable link between climate and human rights, we have added climate impact as a lens that we will also apply to our existing salient human rights issues frameworks, to better understand the human rights implications of a changing climate.

Keeping our salient human rights issues under review

Knowing what our salient issues are has been vital to prioritising our work. But it’s important to stress two things.

The first is that the list is not exhaustive - and we continue to strive to embed respect for all human rights in our value chain.

The second is that while the phrase ‘salient issues’ may sound a little academic or abstract, we know that the impact of human rights abuses is anything but. These issues affect real people, in real ways and impacts can be life-changing.

With both things in mind, we know we need to keep our salient human rights issues under review. There are a number of issues that we are monitoring closely, such as those related to technology, data privacy and AI. Whilst we have teams that work on these ‘emerging’ issues, they are developing quickly. And as they develop it may be appropriate for them to be included within our list of global salient human rights issues.

Global and regional salient issues

Our global salient human rights issues explicitly reflect our global priorities and form an actionable list that we can address. There are several additional issues that remain a key focus for Unilever, and that we have initiatives to address within our value chain, but that have not been included within our global list. Child labour, for example, is an issue that we continue to focus on through regional and commodity specific initiatives where the risk is high, such as in cocoa producing regions of Western Africa. We will also be considering how climate change is impacting child labour through our climate impact lens.

Illustration of a collaborative office environment

Our Salient Human Rights Issues Framework

In 2021, we created a structured approach to address our salient issues through our Salient Issues Framework. Its purpose is to:

  • ensure our approach to each salient issue follows a similar model
  • provide a global framework for each issue, from which local approaches can be adapted
  • enable us to address issues in a consistent manner with consolidated reporting
  • define clearer articulation and co-ordination across issues and areas of intervention
  • more easily prioritise actions and resources
  • share clear impact assessment metrics and KPIs internally and clearly measure/report on progress.

Our four-part Framework

We use the four key elements of our Framework to guide us in tackling our salient issues.

  • Description and impact

    The description of the issue, which includes which stakeholders are impacted and how, how many people the issue affects and where they are, and the main root causes of the issue.

  • Theory of change

    Our theory of change is based on this clear understanding of the problem we are trying to address, and enables us to set out our vision of the outcome we want to deliver.

  • Interventions

    We then define areas of intervention – strategic priorities which will achieve the vision of the theory of change, with clear segmentation on where we will have the biggest impact on people.

  • Action plans

    Our action plans outline what we need to do to achieve these priorities, how we will do this, and the internal and external stakeholders with whom we need to work to achieve our vision.

Building on our 2021 progress report, our Human Rights Report Interim Update (2022) provides a short update on how, during 2022, we have collaborated with suppliers, peers, civil society and governments to strengthen our human rights due diligence and continued to drive efforts for systemic change.

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