Shortly after the Second World War, world leaders came together to rebuild the world and to lay down the ground rules for how states should protect human rights. As a result of this work, they created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
There is a similar echo in how the world is now preparing to rebuild after the Covid-19 pandemic. There is talk about a “Green Recovery” where the world looks how to build back in a way that considers environmental and climate aspects but also takes into account how human rights can be protected.
The Declaration of Human Rights was not meant to regulate companies. But the world has changed since the 1940s when power mostly sat with states. Today, companies may have budgets close to the GDP’s of entire countries and use significant power in global markets.
And as we know, although most states have ratified the Declaration of Human Rights, many have not always lived up to its expectations.
To bring clarity to who is responsible for what, the United Nations issued a set of principles for businesses and governments in 2011: the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). According to these principles, states have the responsibility to protect people from human rights abuses by passing and enforcing laws, while companies must respect human rights in all their operations. Both must be prepared to remedy – to make better – any human rights violations.
The UNGPs were never intended to be viewed as law but more as a first step toward steering companies in the right direction. I’m proud to say that Stora Enso has chosen to do just that. We have invested in human rights work for several years and are thoroughly committed to the UNGPs. This will help us if and when recent calls for actual legislation around human rights due diligence become reality.
I know that human rights due diligence is a mouthful, but the point is simple: for companies to understand the negative impacts they may have on people and then make a plan to avoid, end, and fix those impacts. Until recently, it has mainly been up to companies how to do this – or if to do it at all. In my work, I have seen how companies that have invested in voluntary measures around human rights have put in the resources and effort while others have chosen not to. Making the effort can also bring business benefits, such as better risk management, increased investor ratings, and improved company image. Creating a level playing field, where all companies must take action, is one of the reasons why Stora Enso supports human rights regulation on a global and EU level.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t just about companies and what type of measures they may need to take. This is about people. The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, has brought to light the vulnerability of global supply chains and how unemployment hits people unequally. In my eyes, this highlights how important it is to ensure that all companies are required to understand how they impact people and what they should do to be better.
In addition, climate change cannot be solved without solving social issues: if people cannot feed themselves, we cannot expect them to seek to be carbon neutral or circular. As we are once again rebuilding the world, it needs to come with a transformation. A transformation that considers both the environmental and social implications of our actions – as individuals, as companies, and as states.
Ylva Stiller is Human Rights Director at Stora Enso. She joined the company in 2019 and has a long career in sustainability and human rights in the agricultural sector and consulting. She believes that when companies make the right decisions, they can have significant positive impacts on people and society and be a force for good.