By Anna Triponel, with input from Francis West and Rachel Davis, Shift, July 2021
Today in 2021, there should be little need for a discussion on whether human rights and the environment are intrinsically connected. The question is rather, how can businesses best address risks to people and planet in a holistic way and how can the policy environment enable this transition?
Companies operating today can no longer treat their climate, other environmental and human rights risks in silos: there are too many interconnections between these areas for this approach to work. Rather, what we need is for companies to be empowered, equipped and incentivized to adopt a comprehensive sustainability approach to risks to people and to the planet. The upcoming EU legislation under the Sustainable Corporate Governance Initiative offers a golden opportunity to design a due diligence structure to do just that. And importantly, there are already examples of harmonized due diligence that can serve as a foundation on which new legislation can build.
Here we offer some key reflections that we believe can help inform a harmonized due diligence obligation…
COMPANIES NAVIGATE THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTERNATIONAL EXPECTATIONS AND NATIONAL REQUIREMENTS IN BOTH AREAS
[…] Of particular note, a recent COURT CASE in the Netherlands held an energy company (Royal Dutch Shell) to international climate standards (the 2015 Paris Agreement) rather than to national standards. The court also relied on international expectations contained in the UNGPs, rather than applicable national law, to conclude that the company had a responsibility for scope 3 emissions, beyond its own operations.
In both areas then, companies are increasingly accustomed to navigating international and national standards. On the environmental side however, and in contrast to the human rights side, there is no comprehensive body of international standards on the protection of the environment. This can be addressed by EU regulators defining the adverse environmental impacts that companies should be assessing as part of their due diligence and specifying the key principles of environmental law that companies should have regard to in carrying out their due diligence (such as the precautionary principle).
GROWING CONVERGENCE AROUND THE SCOPE OF RESPONSIBILITY
Companies are expected to take a full value chain approach to human rights due diligence under the UNGPs and the OECD Guidelines. (This full value chain approach is coupled with a specified method for prioritising impacts within the value chain, as further described below). The scope of due diligence extends to impacts that may be directly linked to their operations, products or services through their business relationships. For environmental due diligence, a similar full value chain approach is expected under the OECD Guidelines. Companies should incorporate both direct and indirect environmental impacts connected to their operations into their due diligence. There is also a growing consensus that individual methodologies used for specific environmental areas (such as water, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity) should cover impacts beyond a company’s direct operations and tier one suppliers. Taking a full value chain approach to sustainability due diligence is becoming the expectation.
NOT ONLY LOOKING AT RISKS TO BUSINESS – BUT ALSO RISKS TO PEOPLE AND PLANET
The risks companies will identify through their due diligence will look different – depending on whether they are viewed from the perspective of people, the planet, or the business.
In the human rights space, companies are expected to look at risks to people from the perspective of those who are or may be affected, using international human rights standards. Similarly, in the environmental space, companies are expected to look at risks to the environment from the planet’s perspective – meaning that they need to consider environmental impacts whether or not they also pose risks to the business. This is where new legislation can provide greater clarity for companies, in defining what would constitute an adverse environmental impact.
Beyond this, by bringing these areas together under one ‘sustainability due diligence’ umbrella, we have the opportunity of more clearly understanding the inter-connections between these impacts. For example: impacts on the environment and the climate that, over a longer timeframe, will manifest as impacts on human rights; or impacts on human rights that can be mitigated but in a way that harms the environment in the immediate term. This being said, we also need to ensure that bringing these areas together under one umbrella does not result in the dilution of environmental risks which do not have immediate human rights impacts….
POTENTIAL TO TAKE A LONGER TERM VIEW OF RISK
One point to consider when looking at environmental and human rights risks together is that companies commonly use different timeframes and geographic locations for assessing them…
WHOSE VIEWS DETERMINE WHICH RISKS TO PRIORITIZE?
The human rights risks that companies are expected to prioritize for attention are those that pose the greatest potential harm to people. Since human rights risks should be understood from the perspective of those who are or may be affected, the most effective way to conduct due diligence is to conduct stakeholder engagement – with those who could be impacted or their legitimate representatives, or with credible proxies where direct engagement is not possible, as well as with human rights experts. In the environmental space, we are seeing a growing number of companies including elements of human rights-based stakeholder engagement as part of their environmental work – and this is also expected for environmental impacts that result in impacts on people (as evidenced for instance by the European Parliament’s 2020 PROPOSAL for an EU legal framework to halt and reverse deforestation)…
WHAT ACTIONS IS A COMPANY EXPECTED TO TAKE?
The actions that a company is expected to take in response to a human rights impact differs depending on how the company is, or could be, involved with an impact. There are different expectations for action depending on whether a company has caused the impact, contributed to the impact, or whether the impact is directly linked to the company’s operations, products or services by a business relationship. Actions RANGE from ceasing the impact, preventing the impact, building and using leverage (alone or with others) to prevent and/or mitigate the impact (or seeking to do so), and remedying the impact.
Cause and contribution as modes of involvement are also well-known in environmental due diligence. In particular, we often see companies talk about cumulative environmental impacts: how their actions alongside those of other parties can combine to create environmental impacts. This is akin to contribution in parallel, an accepted mode of involvement in the human rights space. The actions expected for instances of cause or contribution are similar to the human rights space: cease, prevent, and/or mitigate the impacts and remedy the contribution…