Understanding & reporting on our human rights impacts
To make sure we’re respecting – and advancing – the human rights of everyone in our value chain, we need to be sure we understand our impacts.
Addressing endemic human rights issues & their root causes
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. We’re committed to respecting human rights, which means we need to understand the issues and where they occur.
In line with the UN Guiding Principles, 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.
The salient issues for our business
Identifying our salient issues has helped us prioritise how we address human rights impacts across our operations and extended supply chain.
In our inaugural Human Rights Report (PDF | 5MB) in 2015, we explained how, and why, we identified our eight most salient human rights issues - those human rights at risk of the most severe negative impacts to rights-holders through our activities or business relationships.
This process began with an internal, cross-functional workshop facilitated by Shift. Following the UN Guiding Principles approach, we looked at a range of potential human rights impacts resulting from the types of activities we’re involved in. We then prioritised the issues likely to be the most severe, based on:
- how grave the impacts to the rights-holder could be
- how widespread they are, and
- how difficult it would be to remedy any resulting harm.
We also drew on previous conversations with external bodies such as the World Economic Forum Human Rights Global Agenda Council, the Global Social Compliance Programme, AIM-PROGRESS, the UN Global Compact and others at the core of policy implementation, and held discussions with the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan Advisory Council. We identified issues that were coming to the fore as the business rolled out our Responsible Sourcing Policy. We also considered issues being raised in our Global Code and Policy Committee and our Procurement Code Committee.
Reporting on our progress
Since our first Human Rights Report (PDF | 5MB) in 2015, we have reported our progress through our second Human Rights Report (PDF | 10MB), published in December 2017, and in 2018 through a film showing highlights of our progress and by providing examples at a country and global level. We have also reported data and analysis of our supplier audits through our Human Rights Supplier Audit Updates in 2018 (PDF | 4MB) and 2019 (PDF | 4MB).
In 2019 we continued to make progress in responding to our global salient human rights issues, as below. However, we know that salient issues vary from region to region – which is why we’ve run a series of regional stakeholder consultations to identify specific salient issues relevant to each market. This work will inform our efforts in 2020.
Working to respect human rights in a fast-changing world: what we did in 2019
Marcela Manubens, Global Vice President, Integrated Social Sustainability.
Respecting Human Rights is essential to Unilever’s ambition of “making sustainable living commonplace.” And sustainable business growth will only be achieved with prosperous, thriving communities where human rights are upheld. Events in 2019 reflect a regression in the respect for, and promotion of, human rights. New social challenges continue to arise; and to meet them, we will need to ‘innovate rights’ to ensure that this new context does not erode the fundamental value of respect for each and every individual.
Environmental conditions and political and social crises continue to drive an increase in borderless workers, and in refugees seeking better legal protections and good jobs in pursuit of a better life. Yet they find themselves in the most vulnerable conditions, too often leading to modern slavery and forced labour. Our work to combat this in our supply chain is described in Action on forced labour below.
At the same time, the workplace is changing incredibly fast under the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, with huge social, economic and human impacts. The digital borderless and global workforce is the new frontier, and has created a generation of 'invisible workers'. Enabled by technology, companies are engaging consultants and contract labour globally, and at lower cost. At a recent conference, a talented young marketing professional described to me the perils of this model: extreme working hours, low and inconsistent pay and no legal protections or health benefits.
We know these changes will have a profound impact on our business. In 2019, we created and piloted internal guidance to help identify new employment opportunities as the future of work, and our business, changes. Our approach is to collaborate with other businesses, governments, trade unions, civil society and academics – to share lessons and best practices as we adapt to the way that we’ll all work in the future.
2019 also saw a huge focus on the impact of plastics. The environmental consequences of their disposal are all too clear, and we all need to shift to 'less plastic’ and 'no plastic' solutions as well as more recycling. But let’s not forget there’s also a social impact to these changes: plastic is frequently collected by people working in the informal economy, often working under dirty and dangerous conditions and without earning adequate wages or receiving social benefits. To help address this, we’re innovating new business models to ensure that people involved in this industry make a fair living wage. A good example is the excellent work by Prince Kwama Agbata – a Unilever Young Entrepreneur finalist – and his Coliba mobile platform, which formalises waste-pickers’ work and promotes plastic recycling.
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. In 2020 we’ll publish a comprehensive report setting out our human rights journey over the last decade, and setting our ambitions for the future.
Progress on our salient issues in 2019
Our Human Rights 2019 Supplier Audit Update (PDF | 4MB) provides an analysis of the latest findings from our supplier audits, and of how we are addressing our salient issues on a global basis. The sections below give a snapshot of our progress against each salient issue.