Here’s my take on Unilever’s newly-published Human Rights Report, which outlines the type and scale of the challenges it faces and how it organises itself to manage them.  

The numbers

  • 3 billion – people living in extreme poverty
  • 21 million – victims of forced labour
  • 76,000 – suppliers
  • 70% – of the people who buy Unilever products are women

The content

  • Human rights are placed firmly at the centre of the organisation, with a stated ambition to: ’embed the promotion of human rights into every function, every role and every corner of the organisation’.
  • Policies; processes; frameworks; governance; stakeholder collaboration; and reporting methods are all covered in detail.
  • Key issues include: discrimination; fair wages; forced labour; freedom of association; harassment; health and safety; land rights; and working hours.
  • There’s a welcome reference to the Modern Slavery Act, and a recognition that human trafficking is now a high-risk issue.
  • Driving equality is a top priority and some interesting examples are cited around unfair job adverts or routine pregnancy testing. Global measures to tackle discrimination are also planned, such as tracking the number of supplier operations owned and/or led by women.

The verdict

  • Unilever have followed the UN’s Guiding Principles Reporting Framework and at times, this over-complicates the narrative, making the report top-heavy in information about how it is reporting. I would like to have got to the heart of the matter more quickly, with more case studies provided to see what the policies mean in practice and bring the report alive.
  • Design-wise, while clearly set out and easy to follow, the use of jaunty fonts felt at odds with the serious subject matter.
  • Adding an additional layer of reporting with a bespoke Human Rights Report makes sense for a company of Unilever’s size and scope, but it would prove crippling for most sustainability teams. However, where Unilever leads, others follow: I’m hopeful this will at least spark lots of new conversations about human rights in other organisations.
  • The Report probably won’t be widely read, but the real value will come from the preparation work to put the report together, which will have clarified the company’s gaps, strengths and plan for improvement.

Last word

With a business this complex, if Unilever  can do this, there’s no hiding place for anyone else. They’ve made themselves publicly accountable and it can only mean improved conditions for the tens of thousands of people who power their global operations.

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