This Human Rights Day, businesses must be held to account for human rights and environmental failures in their supply chains

 By Alice Lucas, Policy and Advocacy Manager at the Fairtrade Foundation


As the issue of PPE procurement mismanagement during the Covid pandemic once again makes the headlines in the British press, it has reignited debates around the need for fairness, transparency and due diligence in supply chains.

Some countries are further ahead than others when it comes to taking measures to root out injustice and wrongdoing in supply chains. For instance, in recent times laws have been passed in France, Germany, Norway and the EU requiring companies to undertake robust human rights and environmental due diligence across their supply chains or face legal challenges. Businesses will have to proactively identify and manage actual and potential human rights risks for all those in the supply chain.

The introduction of the new laws has coincided with the ten-year anniversary of the Tazreen clothing factory fire in Bangladesh, which killed over 100 garment workers. The anniversary serves as a stark reminder of how we urgently need a new UK law to hold businesses to account when they fail to prevent human rights and environmental abuses in their global value chains.

At Fairtrade, we believe that we need to move beyond voluntary standards towards mandatory legislation that holds businesses to account. The responsibility must lie with businesses to  root out human rights abuses within their supply chains.

new study published for Human Rights Day on 10th December notes that “Fairtrade has the capacity to contribute to ceasing, preventing, and mitigating certain human rights issues”, especially as “Fairtrade’s impact, to a large extent, seems to be directed at the most salient human rights issues”. Fairtrade’s producer networks in Africa, Asia and Latin America are seen to have “a thorough, contextualized, and nuanced understanding of thorny issues such as child labour”.

Further, “Fairtrade is in a good position to bring insights on risks and the voice of producers to the table as a partner in corporate risk identification and assessments”.

Support for meaningful engagement with farmers and workers may be the most valuable form of support, for companies that are highly committed to sustainability. While expected by the UN and OECD due diligence guidance, such engagement does not come easy. The latest report by CHRB, the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, shows that among the world’s largest companies in food and agriculture, information and communication technology, and automotive manufacturing sectors, over 70 percent score zero on their approach to engaging with affected stakeholders.

The study pushes Fairtrade to be clear on our role as a support, not a substitute, to companies’ HREDD, which we have laid out clearly in our Human Rights Statement and HREDD vision. And we know that there is more to do. Fairtrade stands ready to partner with companies on meaningful HREDD that seeks deep dialogue, fair cost sharing and concrete progress to improve lives of farming communities worldwide.

Of course, Fairtrade isn’t enough on its own. “Social audits can’t fix labour rights abuses”, came the reminder from Human Rights Watch on 15 November. Certifications can be “a piece, not a proxy” for corporate sustainability due diligence, added SOMO, a Dutch expert NGO, ten days later. These reports agreed that certifications and social audits can be valuable sustainability tools for companies – but robust internal processes and many other measures are needed too.

Fairtrade fully agrees. Certification can only form part of a company’s sustainability efforts. This is why we engage in so many measures beyond certification. Farmer and worker incomes are so low, environmental challenges so complex, and discrimination so deep-seated in many supply chains, that holistic approaches and collaboration among governments, business and civil society are crucial.