tea picking workers

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Human rights due diligence calls for having frank and open conversations with business partners on the challenges they face

At the end of last year, Lidl GB became the first British food retailer to publish findings from its human rights impact assessment of its tea supply chain in Kenya. What Lidl found was that its typical compliance approach to supply chain management – certification schemes, questionnaires – were failing when it came to human rights. The company realised it needed to engage directly with local stakeholders, consider the ways its own buying practices were harming workers, and join with others to make systemic change in the tea sector.

This is an important lesson for the supermarket industry. As the pressure to conduct human rights due diligence grows (Lidl’s commitment to human rights due diligence came following an Oxfam petition involving 20,000 people in the UK and 18,000 in the Netherlands), so too will the desire for quick fixes and solutions.

This is particularly important as the need to conduct human rights due diligence in supermarket supply chains could soon start to become the law (beyond the confines of France). The European Commission’s consultation on the Sustainable Corporate Governance Initiative – under which companies would be compelled to conduct mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence across their operations and supply chains – has just concluded. And just last week, Germany’s government reached an agreement on a national supply chain due diligence law.

Naturally, it feels daunting for supermarkets to look at the impacts on the human rights of those in their supply chains: supermarkets sell a multitude of products every day, and thousands, if not millions, of workers all over the world could be concerned. It can be tempting to resort to measures that can give a sense of security when it comes to risk management (think top-down approaches premised on compliance with policies).

But when it comes to human rights, sometimes the most powerful measures are the least tangible: a supermarket asking a supplier meaningful questions on its practices that gives it impetus to unlock budget to enhance its supply chain work; sharing good practice with a business partner and inspiring them to create a meaningful worker voice channel; or looking inwards at how the supermarket conducts business and how its own payment terms may squeeze business partners.

At its most essential, the goal of human rights due diligence is to get to an outcome: improved wellbeing of people. Human rights due diligence calls for having frank and open conversations with business partners on the genuine challenges they face to respect human rights – and clear-eyed reflection on what actions supermarkets can take to move the needle.

Here is where we come back to the unique role supermarkets can play. Because of their privileged position – as linchpins to a whole variety of brands and companies in addition to their own-branded goods – supermarkets, together, can play a significant role in driving improved outcomes. This will be all the more important to do as human rights due diligence becomes a legal requirement.

There is another pivotal role supermarkets can play, which relates to the broader eco-system of sustainable consumption. While research shows that consumers will usually seek out price and convenience first, and sustainability second, consumers increasingly express concern over human rights and environmental issues linked to the products they buy. To support their own human rights due diligence efforts, supermarkets can be creative in looking to play a broader role to influence the market for more sustainable purchasing practices by their customers.

There are many human rights issues that companies are expected to have a handle on, which will only grow as new legislation unfurls and pressures like the Covid-19 pandemic put greater pressure than ever on workers and business alike. But peer experience shows that taking a thoughtful, strategic approach to human rights due diligence is a key tool to not only meet expectations but to stay ahead of the curve. Shelving a compliance-only approach to human rights is the way to go.