25 Feb 21 | Podcast
Toby Webb asks the Institute for Human Rights and Business’s John Morrison how far human rights issues are now being tackled properly by international business
JM: Social licence seems to have penetrated the board rooms of mining companies in particular – and to some extent other parts of the extractive sector. What’s interesting is how often I am beginning to hear senior management in food and beverage companies use the term. Grassroots NGOs are starting to do so too. Maybe it is because I have been writing the book that my ears have tuned in to the social licence term – hearing it in recent meetings from Nairobi to Tokyo – but I think it is more than my own wishful thinking. It seems to be in the zeitgeist.
TW: You write that social licence for business is about “finding ways of building capacity within the existing social contract without replacing it”. Isn’t that a) a bit academic to mean anything in business and b) outside how most companies view responsible business? (In that most companies don’t focus much on building capacity.)
JM: You say “academic” as if it were a dirty word! I am not an academic but it doesn’t mean that us policy people and practitioners should not be interested in ideas. It has been a fundamental flaw of corporate responsibility, in my view at least, that it has not been locked into some more objective view of society. It is why much CR lacks legitimacy in the view of many communities and NGOs.
Linking CR into a more objective way of thinking about how society works – such as the social contract – is the best way of achieving such legitimacy in the eyes of others. So yes, I am not offering up anything easy here, nor do I give all the practical steps, but I am asking for a paradigm-shift. There are many business managers who feel that CR needs some kind of reboot – I hope mine is helpful.
I was recently in Japan, meeting many companies, NGOs and the government and it is clear that the embedding process is starting there. More globally, there have been some impressive steps – such as companies issuing human rights white papers on methodology, participating in sector-wide impact assessments that are then fully disclosed, or participating in multi-stakeholder attempts to create objective human rights performance benchmarks. In many ways the serious work is only just starting, but it is starting.
TW: What will it take to bring big companies in laggard countries such as India, China and Japan to the table on business and human rights? What’s your view on the state of play with these countries and their companies today?
In many ways, social licence is an increasingly material concept for these companies – perhaps more than is understood by many European companies, for example.
John Morrison is executive director of the Institute for Human Rights and Business and author of the new book The Social License: How to Keep Your Organization Legitimate.