Three Key Reflections from This Year’s Engaging Business Forum
October 24, 2023
By Faris Natour and Taylor Fulton
Discussing the tough questions and finding practical solutions: that was the unofficial theme at this year’s Engaging Business Forum, an annual business and human rights conference hosted by the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta. And the event did not disappoint, with participants from business and civil society engaging in lively discussion and debate on topics ranging from the benefits and challenges associated with new due diligence regulations to advancing a living wage and responsible AI.
We had the chance to participate in the Forum this year and share our reflections on the key themes that emerged from the discussions on and off stage, challenges that we believe will shape the business and human rights field in the coming years:
- Regulatory Compliance – Shifting to the How: The debate about whether or not we need mandatory human rights due diligence regulation is as old, or maybe even older, than our business and human rights field. With major regulations now in place across key markets such as Germany and the US and others, including the EU’s CSDDD approaching, the Forum marked one of the first major events where discussion has shifted to how we can implement these regulations effectively and efficiently.
While some of the on-stage debate still focused on whether mandatory due diligence regulation is good or bad, participants largely were focused on how we can build the airplane while we fly it. Discussions on and off stage focused on how to leverage existing policies and management systems, how to strengthen due diligence while human rights teams are already feeling resource and time constrained, how companies with complex supply chains can implement due diligence systems at scale, how we can maintain a focus on improving human rights and avoid a check-the-box mentality, and how to ensure companies in scope for the regulations stay competitive with those who are not.
The answers to these questions are complex and they depend on each company’s unique operating context. Even as some answers remain elusive, we are now asking the right questions, which makes us optimistic that we’ll see real advancements in human rights due diligence and integration in the coming year.
- A Common Language on Living Wage: Maybe the most important session at the Forum was a panel on bringing the concept of living wage to life. Rather than a debate about whether or not it was feasible to advance a living wage across a company’s business and supply chain, or whether to call it a fair wage or a living wage or something else, this session again focused on the HOW, highlighting steps companies can take to advance a living wage, from authoritative benchmarks and certifications to prioritizing vulnerable populations and building supplier awareness and capability. Notably, the discussion also focused on living wage in the US, the home market for many of the companies in attendance, where inflation has contributed to increased challenges and the legal minimum wage in much of the country is below what would constitute a living wage level.
The open, honest and constructive discussion on living wage is an important step forward for our field. In our human rights impact assessments and engagements in markets across the world, living wage is consistently identified by workers as a key human rights challenge that can cause or contribute to other human rights impacts, including excessive work hours, forced labor, and lack of access to essential services. We expect to see more corporate commitments on living wage in the coming months, as attention on this issue continues to grow and practical pathways to implementation emerge.
- Grievance and Remedy as a Priority: The Engaging Business Forum also continued another positive trend in the business and human rights discourse: elevating the importance of both grievance and remedy mechanisms as part of companies’ human rights policies and management systems. In addition to a dedicated panel on remedy, which focused on the practical challenges of providing access to remedy in the supply chain beyond tier 1, grievance and remedy systems for potentially impacted rightsholders across both the upstream and downstream value chain were a recurring theme throughout many of the other sessions as well (although we ran out of time in our session on human rights and AI).
A key challenge facing the field here is the need to provide rightsholders with meaningful channels to raise concerns and for responsible parties to address them while avoiding a proliferation of parallel channels as each company sets up their own system to align with regulatory expectations. The focus on grievance and remedy systems again tracks well with what we are seeing in our work advising companies on human rights, where we are increasingly engaging with workers and other stakeholders to assess what effective grievance, remedy, and worker voice systems should look like.
The increased focus on living wage and on grievance and remedy systems are good indications of how much the regulatory developments are already impacting the business and human rights field, with both themes also reflecting key regulatory requirements.
Bringing the field together in person and online, the Engaging Business Forum sparked constructive and important discussions on these and other topics while providing a space for exchange and collaboration between business and civil society. While much work remains to be done, we came away with the impression that our field has taken an important step forward, and we are excited to continue to work with our clients to advance practical solutions to these and other challenges.
To learn more about our work at Article One or to share your own reflections from the Forum, get in touch with us at email@example.com.