Sixty years after the United Nations signed the Declaration of Human Rights, meetings were held in Paris during December 2008 between UN officials and Business Leaders to explore ways to widen the scope of the Human Rights agenda.

In an interview with France 24 Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland (1990-97); former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002) and now leader of the Realizing Rights Group focussed on ethical globalisation initiatives, spoke of broadening the Human Rights agenda to include fair trade; the plight of children in the workplace; the empowerment of women in political and business circles and above all Action Against Poverty. Logistics and the Supply Chain figure in each of these issues.

Celebrating the fact that over 230 companies worldwide have become involved in this initiative, Mary Robinson said: “I am encouraged to see more and more companies taking a public stand on human rights. This is yet another sign that human rights are becoming part of the mainstream business agenda.”

A world connected by trade and technology must be bound by common values and, as such connectivity along the supply chain takes many companies into visible or invisible connections with the informal economy, the ways in which logistics links and can transform business models needs a closer look. For example, M&S in the UK deal with over 1,000 factories worldwide and this is a clearly recognised pattern in many industrial sectors.

As Professor Martha Chen of Harvard University points out, globalisation is associated with outsourcing production into areas with lower costs in the developing world. To some this has become a race to the bottom and, this is where Human Rights can become an issue. With 60 to 90% of employment in developing countries being in the informal sector it is clear that the informal sector has a massive role to play in effective and efficient supply chains. For example, whilst many countries such as India are experiencing an increase in the formal Retail sector this does not mean that the informal sector will be eliminated. A more realistic view would see more hybrid business models emerge to encourage greater visibility and inclusivity between the informal and formal sectors. 

Enhanced visibility makes sound business sense as efforts to establish and maintain health & safety norms, protect human rights in the workplace, reduce the carbon footprint and manage environmental impacts, control security risks or guarantee ethical work practices will require greater transparency all along the supply chain.

We are moving fast from a “trust me” to a “show me” world where business practice has to be open to scrutiny and this generates the need for better statistics and insight into the end-to-end process as a means to focus action needed. Such realistic assessment and / or future proofing brings us back to the more expansive scope of Human Rights that Mary Robinson and those more than 230 companies are talking about. After all, ethical supply chains are effective and efficient routes to market and can transform outcomes on a wide range of related issues.