Human rights for sustainable development – Interview with Filippo Veglio

Human rights for sustainable development – Interview with Filippo Veglio

A few questions to Filippo Veglio, Managing Director & Member of the Senior Management Team of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the network made up of over 60 companies around the world, united in their commitment to promote sustainable development among the business leadership of their respective countries.

From your privileged observatory, is the awareness that respect for human rights is also a strategic business topic growing among company CEOs?

In some companies this is certainly already a fact, while for others there is still a need to improve knowledge about human rights and promote the strategic value of this topic for business. Over the last few years, we have identified continuous developments that stimulate companies and CEOs to interact with the issue and recognize its strategic value. Among these trends we can highlight three: regulatory and legislative developments that make stakeholder expectations actionable; public interest is as high as ever and the social media allow for fast global news dissemination; and investor interest is growing strongly. These trends create, on the one hand, pressure on companies and, on the other hand, opportunities for responsible companies to distinguish themselves from less responsible ones.

The Guide you have put together as WBCSD is a sort of call to action aimed at great managers. What goals does it set and how is it articulated?

Certainly, the Guide for CEOs is a real call to action by CEOs who: recognize the responsibility of companies to respect human rights as described in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs); identify respect for human rights as an opportunity to positively transform the lives of those exposed to the impacts of company activity and to contribute decisively to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); emphasize the urgency of leadership and action by companies to advance respect for human rights within their companies and beyond; and invite their peers to join them in demonstrating company leadership for human rights. The guide itself contains instructions on how to state company respect for human rights and actions company leaders can take to be at the forefront of this critically important issue.

Companies are increasingly glass houses in the stakeholder spotlight. How much have investors’ expectations regarding respect for human rights increased in recent years?

Investor demands have undoubtedly grown strongly in recent years. On the one hand, following up on expectations raised by consumers, civil society, and governments; on the other, as a response to the recognition that company human rights practices affect their financial performance. We are talking about reputational damage, litigation, plummeting shareholder value and the delay or withdrawal from projects. Some investors have begun to integrate human rights compliance into the cost of capital for credit lines, and still others are making their voices heard through initiatives and benchmarks. In recent years, we have also observed an increasing number of shareholder resolutions related to company human rights performance. According to some studies, by 2020 the number of these resolutions has even surpassed those related to the climate emergency.

Human rights are an ever-evolving topic. What skills are most in demand on the job market in this area?

I think they can be summarized as follows: knowledge of company agendas in a context of the “new normal” in which increasingly ambitious sustainability processes and policies are shaped at both social and environmental levels; a systemic approach to problems, combining knowledge, the search for solutions, and the management of complex relationships with internal and external stakeholders; the ability to inspire and facilitate the transmission of knowledge.

In these difficult times, are there “new” human rights that are emerging or need to be asserted more forcefully?

The climate emergency has invigorated new debates on the international adoption of the right to a healthy environment, and the daily use of new technologies, both in private and professional life, has undoubtedly raised awareness of the need to address their impact on human rights. The pandemic also highlighted issues such as inequality in terms of access to the health and education system, income security and gender equality.

In all of this, “old” issues continue to demand our attention, for example forced labor, a problem not only in developing countries but also in Europe, or freedom of association and working conditions which are in the spotlight, for example because of company practices based on insecure jobs.

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