Five Questions for Business & Human Rights Leaders: Irit Tamir, Oxfam America

In the latest of our series, 'Five Questions for Business & Human Rights Leaders,' Article One speaks with Irit Tamir of Oxfam America. In her seven years at Oxfam, Ms. Tamir helped launch Oxfam America's Behind the Brands and supported community-led human rights impact assessments with migrant and undocumented farmworkers in the United States. In this profile, Ms. Tamir offers advice to CEOs and discusses the one thing that continues to surprise her about working on business and human rights.

1.    You trained as a lawyer and served as an Assistant District Attorney years before joining Oxfam America’s Private Sector Department. What propelled you to move from law to business and human rights? Did the transition present any surprises?

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I had always planned on a career in human rights. As a prosecutor I was actively involved in civil rights prosecutions. However, an organization like Oxfam was always my end goal. When I started out, business and human rights had not established itself as a field. However, as time went on I realized, like so many, the kind of impact that the private sector has on people’s rights and how much influence they have in the world. For example, Coca-Cola is in as many countries as the U.S. government. That reach speaks to the influence of the private sector and its ability to impact lives—both positively and negatively.

While the field of business and human rights has evolved, I’m surprised that I have to legitimize the human rights discussion. I still hear people say to me “we can’t use human rights terms. We have to talk to business about it as sustainability, CSR, or social impact.” That was the biggest surprise for me in moving from traditional human rights work to engaging business on human rights.

2.     You help lead Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign which assesses the agricultural sourcing policies of the world's 10 largest food and beverage companies. The campaign uses a public scorecard and engagement with consumers—over 700,000 consumers signed on to the campaign—to advocate for change. Despite multiple studies questioning whether consumers alter their purchasing practices based on sustainability concerns, it appears that consumer engagement played an important role in the campaign’s success. Why do you think companies respond to consumer pressure, even in the absence of consumers ‘voting’ with their wallet?  

I actually think that that’s a bit of an unfair statement. For one, we’re seeing a rise in ‘good-foodie’ companies getting acquired by big multinationals. These companies build a loyal consumer base because they are focused on producing food in a nutritious, ethical and sustainable way. They are getting acquired by multinationals because of their success. That is an indication that consumers do care about these issues.

At the same time, it is becoming increasingly difficult as a consumer to have all the information you would need to make informed purchasing decisions. There are people who devote their lives to understanding the food system and even we don’t fully understand it due to a lack of transparency. If that is the case, how can we expect a mother or father shopping at the grocery store to make informed decisions with their pocketbook. Additionally, consumers may have concerns about paying more for an ethical product when that purchase may have a minimal impact without others making similar decisions.

That said, Behind the Brands never asks for consumers to boycott brands. Instead we say: “You love these brands, tell them you want them to do business differently.” For multinational companies their most prized asset is their brand. When you go into a store you can buy Stop & Shop rice or you can buy Uncle Ben’s rice. And the reason you choose Uncle Ben’s rice isn’t because the quality is different but because it is Uncle Ben’s and there is a brand associated with it that people feel loyalty to. I think that is what we have tapped into in the campaign and why it is so successful.  

3.     You have been involved in championing and piloting the Getting It Right tool. This online tool supports communities impacted by corporate operations in surfacing and analyzing actual and potential human rights impacts stemming from company activity. Why are community-led assessments needed and what are the main barriers to their success?

Ideally communities and companies would conduct human rights assessments in a joint or parallel way. We are looking to drive that kind of engagement further. However, there will always be companies that are not interested in engaging communities. In those cases, community-led impact assessments allow communities to take the situation into their own hands and drive the due diligence process. That process can then inform other stakeholders around the project such as the national and local government, neighboring communities, and other companies interested in similar projects.

However, there are significant barriers to the success of community-led assessment, including 1) limited resources and 2) receptivity of the company. Companies remain the key decision makers related to a project. As such, while communities can assess impacts and develop recommendations, they remain dependent on the company’s willingness to hear and act upon the findings.

4.     If you had one piece of advice for a CEO looking to advance respect for human rights throughout her company, what would it be and why?

If you really want to respect human rights you need to be willing to give up some power or financial benefit. It could mean choosing not to move forward with a project because it has too many negative impacts, or choosing lower margins to ensure a living wage is paid and the financial benefits are spread.

5.     If you weren’t working on business and human rights issues, what would you be doing?

I’d still be working on human rights, but more in the rights and crisis space then in the business and human rights space. That’s what I thought I’d be doing, but when I joined Oxfam I realized how much opportunity there was in the business and human rights space and it has satisfied my desire to have impact and be intellectually challenged every day.