Rightswashing – lessons learned from the illusion of “slave free” supply chains

Author

Harriet von Spiegel

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In the sustainability debate the environmental pillar typically receives the most attention, but we are gradually witnessing an increased awareness of the need to also take the human cost of business operations into consideration. This development has been facilitated by the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the ratification of various supply chain transparency laws. However, as many organizations are stepping up their efforts to tackle human rights abuses in their supply chains, we are also witnessing an increase in the practice of ‘rightswashing’.

One could simply blame companies for their wrongdoing or weak legislation for lacking the enforcement mechanisms to prevent abuses. However, this would ignore two important considerations; rightswashing often indicates a widespread misunderstanding of the UNGPs and supply chain laws and secondly, every one of us has a responsibility to help end rightswashing.

 

What is rightswashing and how can we spot it?

The term rightswashing is analogous to the better known concept of greenwashing which describes “the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are more environmentally sound.”[1] Whereas greenwashing aims to mislead the public into believing that an organization’s product is environmentally friendly, rightswashing intends to deceive the public by conveying the false impression that a business is operating in a socially responsible manner.

Rightswashing can take various different forms including bold claims that “our supply chain is free from slavery.” “Slave free” supply chains are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to achieve and such claims are commonly provided without any form of validation. Such statements are not only morally problematic, but also can create significant legal risks for the claimant.

More subtle forms of rightswashing include cases where companies simply copy and paste best practice guidelines into their policies and guidelines. This practice signals a lack of honest engagement with the subject matter and may be inadequate to ensure that risk treatment strategies are integrated into the company’s wider practices. Rightswashing is also facilitated by a whole industry of certification schemes and labels. This is not to say that all certifications promote rightswashing, but phrases such as “ethically sourced” are often used without any evidence of appropriate due diligence.

How can we explain rightswashing?

Rightswashing is (at least) partially the result of a common misunderstanding of the requirements specified in the UNGPs and reporting laws such as the Australian Modern Slavery Act. Contrary to what might be assumed, the UNGPs do not require companies to prove that their supply chains are entirely free from human rights abuses but instead they require businesses to demonstrate that they have taken proactive steps to prevent, mitigate and remediate negative social impacts resulting from their business activities.[2] Similarly the Australian MSA requires organizations only to report on modern slavery risks in their supply chain and the actions taken to address these risks.[3] The official guidance on the Australian MSA specifically states that “this criterion does not require you to certify that the reporting entity is ‘slave free’. Every entity has modern slavery risks in its operations and supply chain.”[4] Companies are further requested to be honest about their findings and to outline their challenges and limitations in mitigating risks.[5]

The UK Modern Slavery Act goes even further because, in situations where a company has taken no steps to mitigate slavery risks, it may still comply with the Act as long as it states this fact in its modern slavery statement.[6] Although this provision has been widely criticized,[7] it emphasizes the law’s intention to foster honest transparency.

How to end rightswashing: A call to action

By taking advantage of the public’s desire for more socially responsible businesses, companies are abusing the public’s trust; in contrast to the objectives of supply chain legislation. What does this paradox mean for businesses, consumers and investors?

Businesses need to take their social responsibilities seriously by adopting a rights-respecting business culture and conducting thorough human rights due diligence,[8] with the objective of mitigating risks to people- not companies. Instead of treating the implementation of human rights due diligence as a mere compliance exercise or a charitable act, organizations need to understand the urgency and seriousness of the issue.

In order to achieve this, we need to establish an environment that encourages honesty and genuine transparency. As consumers we need to stop overlooking unrealistic statements and misleading or lacking information. Also, instead of blaming businesses when they disclose serious shortcomings and weaknesses in their supply chains, we should acknowledge their honesty and make judgments based on their efforts to mitigate and remediate risks. Simultaneously, pressure against companies that refuse to conduct any form of human rights due diligence should increase.

To mainstream business respect for human rights we also need investors to encourage and drive further improvements in supply chain transparency. Investors should not rely on bold commitments, empty promises or shiny labels but instead they need to look below the surface and ask companies for verification and proof on the statements they make.

Rightswashing conceals the complex nature of human rights abuses in business supply chains. To end this misconduct, we need to move away from the culture of ‘name and shame’ towards an acknowledgment of shared responsibility which allows for an environment of collaboration and shared learning and enables companies to admit and remediate human rights abuses effectively.

 

 

[1] Kenton, W. (2020), Greenwashing

[2] UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011)

[3] Australian Modern Slavery Act (2018)

[4] Guidance Australian Modern Slavery Act (2019) (p.39)

[5] Guidance Australian Modern Slavery Act (2019) (p.50)

[6] Transparency in supply chains: a practical guide (2019) (1.4)

[7] Independent Review of the UK Modern Slavery Act (2019) (p.41)

[8] The UNGPs define human rights due diligence as a process for companies to “to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their adverse human rights impacts” (UNGPs, p.17)