Archive for Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate Social Responsibility Belongs on the U.S. Human Rights Agenda

By Ashley E. Chappo, editor of RightsViews and a M.I.A. candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University

Last week represented a potential turning point for the United States in its commitment to international human rights law and corporate regulation. From October 23 to 27, members of the open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises (OEIGWG) convened at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to draft a legally-binding instrument with respect to corporations and human rights. Despite its leadership role in the world order and the prominence of transnational corporations operating within its borders, the United States has so far remained disengaged from negotiations on this new treaty agreement.

Artwork condemning alleged sweatshop abuses by Apple. // marissaorton // Flickr

The treaty process, which could take years to complete, is a historic opportunity for the United States to stand up for its shared values with other governments in regulating and holding accountable the stateless, corporate actors often associated with violations of human rights, from alleged sweatshop abuses by Nike in Vietnam to dangerous working conditions at an Apple factory in China. The OEIGWG hopes to close a critical governance gap in the international human rights framework. A single, international legal framework by which transnational corporations can be held accountable for violations of human rights would be the ideal instrument for corporate human rights transgressors.

The meeting last week was the third session of the working group, established in June 2014 during the 26th session of the Human Rights Council, and followed a social movement for change led by over 600 civil society organizations worldwide, officially known as the “Treaty Alliance.” Resolution 26/9 provided the working group with a mandate to “elaborate an international legally-binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.” Such a treaty has been on the table since the 1970s but has repeatedly been opposed by the business sector and Western governments.

A garment factory in Vietnam. // ILO in Asia and the Pacific // Flickr

To date, one of the largest challenges to the treaty remains the continued opposition from key countries that have decided not to be involved in the creation of a binding agreement. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), adopted in 2011, clearly helped to develop a stronger international consensus around responsible business conduct, with 17 states now having produced a National Action Plan and 32 others in the process of developing such a plan through government or civil society action, but an obligatory framework remains the ultimate goal. The proposed treaty faces resistance not only from the U.S., but also from a significant number of developed U.N. Member States and Western powers, including the United Kingdom and other European Union countries. The first two sessions of the working group, which were dedicated to “conducting constructive deliberations on the content, scope, nature and form of the future international instrument,” lacked contribution from these keys states.

In addition, when the working group was formed by Resolution 26/9, twenty states including the Africa Group, Russia, China and India voted in favor of the resolution, while 14 States including the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and Japan voted against it, demonstrating early and deep divisions among states. The present push for a binding treaty has largely been led by nations from the Global South, which may explain in part some of the resistance from the West. The resolution, proposed by Ecuador and co-sponsored by Bolivia, Cuba, South Africa, and Venezuela, also received and continues to receive vigorous support from civil society organizations and the private sector. With leadership and input from the U.S., a hard law framework would gain more traction.

U.N. special representative John Ruggie // Creative Commons

As the Trump administration continues to cut regulatory red tape on business enterprises in pursuit of economic revival, it is ever more important that the United States work to implement the UNGPs while also championing corporate social responsibility at the international level. The UNGPs, developed by U.N. special representative John Ruggie, were unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council and consist of 31 voluntary guidelines to implement the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework, which seeks to prevent, address and remedy human rights violations committed in business operations. Such violations, for example, have included the injury of more than 100,000 people in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, through illegal toxic-waste dumping initiated by multinational oil trading company Trafigura, and the destruction of the Ecuadorian rainforest and its critical water resources by Chevron (formerly Texaco), dubbed “Rainforest Chernobyl.” While the UNGP framework for enhancing business standards is internationally accepted, it is not obligatory, raising questions about its ability to hold stateless violators like Trafigura and Chevron accountable.

Toxic industrial waste disposal remains an issue of corporate violators // fernost // Creative Commons

Following the first session of the intergovernmental working group, Ruggie wrote about the main problems that face the treaty, including its lack of a specific focus, the deep divisions among states and its limited scope of transnational corporations. If these dynamics continue, he contends, “the process is likely to yield one of two outcomes: no treaty at all, or one that squeaks through to adoption but is ratified by few if any major home countries and thus would be of no help to victims in whose name the negotiations were launched.” At the conclusion of this third session, Ruggie told RightsViews, “What I said after the last session still holds.” Though he believes further international legalization in business and human rights is inevitable and desirable, he says there is little hope for the treaty if civil society does not advance workable proposals that states cannot ignore.

With fewer restrictions on businesses and some of the most powerful transnational corporate giants operating under very little scrutiny in regard to human rights, the U.S. needs to include corporate social responsibility on its human rights agenda, both at the civil society and governmental level. While the U.S. has already implemented a National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct, the Global Compact, OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and Sustainability Policy of the International Finance Corporation, these more voluntary approaches to corporate social responsibility, with some mandatory elements and preconditions, are a good start but not adequate to solving human rights abuses by international corporate actors.

Ashley E. Chappo is a Master of International Affairs candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School. She concentrates in human rights and humanitarian policy and is a current student of the Corporations and Human Rights seminar. She is editor of RightsViews. 


Good Business and Good Coffee: A Case Study of Human Rights and Sustainable Business Practices

By Colleen J. Brisport, graduate of the MA in Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University

My thesis explores current theories on business, fair trade and human rights developed by scholars such as John Ruggie and Laura Raynolds. These academics have articulated the difficulties and the improbabilities of corporations sincerely incorporating human rights within their business operations. Several scholars of human rights and business, such as Kenneth Roth, believe that the ‘naming and shaming’ tactics of non-profit organizations, voluntary industry standards and legal suits are ways in which we can pressure businesses to consider human rights in their business operations and hold them accountable for their actions. However, my thesis supports a different approach and illustrates how the Starbucks Coffee Company and Coopetarrazu Coffee Cooperative have worked cooperatively to make economic, social and cultural rights of the Tarrazú coffee farmers an important aspect of their business relationship.

I was fourteen years old when I participated in one of the most influential service projects of my life. This event was a day of service in which a small group of students planned youth service projects, ranging from park cleanups to visits to the elderly, for over 15,000 youth volunteers.

For the four years I was involved in planning the event, Starbucks provided the after-school caffeine necessary to plan this very large and demanding day of service. They would also provide breakfast and coffee for the day of the event so that our volunteers would be ready and energized to commit to a full day of service work.  Although many different experiences and academic pursuits have lead me to write my thesis on business and human rights, I am confident that my positive experience with corporations has made me a passionate advocate and believer for integrating human rights in the private sector.

Coffee Fields in Tarrazú (tall banana trees provide the shade for the coffee plants necessary for organic farming). Photo: Colleen Brisport

The reason I chose to study Tarrazú, Costa Rica and their relationship with Starbucks Coffee Corporation is because the people of Tarrazú truly identify as a coffee community and the cultivation of coffee is integral to their social, cultural and economic rights.

The Costa Rican Coffee Institute describes the country’s relationship with coffee as such: “To truly comprehend the meaning of coffee for Costa Rica, it is important to understand that for us it is an everyday matter, but that it also represents a great value for the country’s socio-economic and environmental system.”  As a result of this relationship to coffee production, I believed that they would be very sensitive and critical of any relationship they had with private companies.

The processing plant at Coopetarrazu Coffee Cooperative. Photo: Colleen Brisport.

I traveled to Tarrazú, Costa Rica during March 2012; I expected to find the coffee farmers discontented about their relationship with Starbucks.  One of the most interesting aspects of this relationship was that the coffee farmers did not identify as poor farmers who were victims of capitalism and globalization as described in the literature on coffee farming and human rights. For example, in Guatemala coffee farmers are not paid a minimum wage and child labor is rampant.  As noted in The Ecologist, typically coffee farmers only earn about 10% of the retail price of the coffee they produce.  It was made clear to me in my discussions with farmers and the cooperative staff that they regarded themselves as professional business people who desired to make a profit from a product they love.  They perceive their challenges as normal experiences of any entrepreneur and seek positive relationships with multinational companies, buyers and distributors of coffee to overcome these challenges. Starbucks acknowledged this and works to ensure predictable coffee production quantity and quality for the company and for Coopetarrazu.

Even before Starbucks offered their assistance, the Tarrazú farmers were aware that conventional agriculture was ruining the environment. They knew that there was both an environmental need (due to polluted water sources and soil dilution of nutrients) and an economic need (increasing consumer demand for organic coffee) to switch to organic coffee. Starbucks is the first company to come to the community and discuss issues of environmentalism and sustainability. The most significant contribution that Starbucks has made to the community is the involvement of Starbucks scientists and agronomists in assisting the Tarrazú coffee farmers’ switch to organic farming. This is accomplished through farmers support centers where coffee farmers are trained in sustainable farming techniques.

Starbucks supports human rights by paying a price for coffee that is high enough to maintain the livelihoods of the farmers and uses ILO guidelines to monitor working conditions for coffee pickers. However, the most important aspect of the relationship cited by both Starbucks and Coopetarrazu is the ability to maintain an open and transparent relationship between the two organizations. I could certainly tell there was an amicable relationship between the two, when a cooperative administrator told me to say hello to his friends in the Starbucks office in San Jose Costa Rica.

Starbucks is currently conducting research on which coffee plants grow best in the various climates in the regions of Costa Rica where they source their coffee. The most significant aspect of the Starbucks-Coopetarrazu partnership is that Costa Rica is a country that is very environmentally conscious, believes in labor rights, is the most developed in comparison to its neighbors and still welcomes the suggestions and regulations of a private company. This suggests that the private sector can provide services, knowledge and a relationship to agricultural workers that is necessary for them to sustain their livelihoods, societies and cultures.

Sign outside the Costa Rican Coffee Institute in Tarrazú, Costa Rica.  Photo: Colleen Brisport.

It is very easy to become frustrated and irate about the egregious human rights violations of corporations. It is even more daunting when human rights advocates realize there are little legal tools or international agreements to protect individuals from corporate human rights abuses. As a result, I hope my thesis can inspire both businesses and advocates to seriously explore ways in which profits, business models, employees, producers and consumers can combine efforts to make human rights an important internal matter for private corporations. The case of Starbucks and Coopetarrazu is one example of this type of relationship.


Colleen Brisport graduated from the MA in Human Rights Studies program in October 2012 and is currently enrolled at New England School of Law in Boston. In the future, she hopes to pursue a career in business and legal consulting for organizations interested in social entrepreneurship, human rights and corporate social responsibility.  She would like to thank the community of Tarrazú, Costa Rica for participating in her research program and providing her with an invaluable life and learning experience.