In the latest of our series, 'Five Questions for Business & Human Rights Leaders,' Article One speaks with Phil Bloomer of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. Since joining BHRRC in 2013, Mr. Bloomer has led the launch of the Company and Government Action Platform as well as the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark. In this profile, Mr. Bloomer discusses how concerns about inequality led him to work on human rights, and what he would be doing if he weren't working to advance BHRRC's mission.
1. Welcome to Article One’s Interview Series: Five Questions for Business & Human Rights Leaders. You’ve been involved in the business and human rights space for over two decades, what drew you to this work?
Hyper-inequality has always been at the core of my work, whether linked to power, wealth, or the global ecological crisis. I was drawn to the business and human rights field because I believe that business plays an indispensable role in confronting the challenges of these worsening inequalities worldwide. Although my title did not include the words business and human rights until a few years ago, the human rights dimension of business have featured prominently throughout my work in the past three decades: including the impacts of mega-projects and resource extraction on indigenous communities from Colombia to DRC; access to medicines and the pharmaceutical sector, especially at the worst time of the HIV/AIDS epidemic; or the responsibilities of major food companies to respect the rights of smallholder farmers in their supply chains.
2. Before joining the BHRRC you were with Oxfam where you held a number of positions including Director of Campaigns and Policy. How have you seen the NGO and business relationship change and evolve in the last 20 years?
Companies are certainly open to engaging with NGOs much more than 20 years ago, but the depth of these engagements vary enormously. A small group of leading companies are making major efforts to shift from corporate social responsibility to integrating human rights into the core of their business model. They partner with NGOs with this consideration in mind. Unilever’s request for Oxfam to give recommendations on improving labour rights in its supply chain in Vietnam in 2013 is a clear example of this shift. However, many companies continue to use collaborations with NGOs as part of their philanthropic activities – as evidenced by the fact that these collaborations are primarily handled by company foundations rather than through their core business. We need more companies to shift: business and human rights is how businesses MAKE their money; not what they do with the money they make.
3. The BHRRC, with six other institutions, will launch the first ever Corporate Human Rights Benchmark later this year. The Benchmark will rank the world’s largest publicly listed companies on their human rights performance. In light of corporate concerns regarding survey fatigue and the proliferation of sustainability standards and ratings—from the GNI and SASB to the UNGP Reporting Framework—how will the Benchmark add value?
We certainly understand companies’ survey and rating fatigue. The value added by the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark is that it is the first effort to rank the largest companies to provide a reputation reward for leaders and reputation risk for laggards. Our hope, with the large investment houses involved, is to start to see the material human rights risks of companies be internalized in the cost of capital from investors, as well as access to talent – all this to help our movement to create a ‘race to the top’ (and a race from the bottom). We also hope it will support governments to bring in the right regulation, norms, and incentives (such as public procurement) as they seek to prevent better companies in the rankings from being undercut by those companies that externalize the social costs of their business. The Benchmark will also rank companies not only on their human rights policies and processes but also on some aspects of their performance. It is the only benchmark that includes indicators of the quality of companies’ responses to human rights allegations in its methodology. Moreover, the Benchmark encourages transparency by companies but does not prescribe new requirements – rather, it aims to align with other initiatives such as the UNGP Reporting Framework and the Global Reporting Initiative. In this way, the benchmark aims to maintain coherence with existing initiatives while providing an evidence-based ranking to drive a race to the top on companies’ policies and performance on human rights.
4. What are three things you’d like business to know about the BHRRC and how they can engage with the work you are doing?
We always welcome companies’ perspectives and engagement with our work. Three ways in which companies can engage with us are to:
- Subscribe to our Weekly Update newsletters for free news about business and human rights;
- Use our Business Action tools hub and Company Action Platform where 100 companies share information about their human rights policies and practices: you can create your own benchmarking tables customized to your needs – comparing your company with your competitors on any areas of identified human rights risk;
- Keep an eye out for our invitations to respond to human rights allegations by third parties – your responses are hugely valued by the broader movement, and help others to see how companies can demonstrate respect for human rights through due diligence, dialogue, and access to remedy when things go wrong.
5. If you weren’t working on business and human rights issues, what would you be doing?
Part of me would love to devote a lot more time to my garden, watercolors, and hill-walking. But, I love my work too much. I would probably be working on climate change full time, rather than integrating it into our work on business and human rights. We need more scrutiny not only on polluting fossil fuels companies but also on the emerging renewable energy sector. We are entering a huge economic and industrial transition to a low carbon economy. For it to be successful, it must be both fast and fair.