Dunstan Allison-Hope oversees BSR’s human rights, women’s empowerment, and inclusive economy practices. Previously, Dunstan led BSR’s information and communications technology and heavy manufacturing practices. Dunstan facilitated the multi-stakeholder process of developing global principles on freedom of expression and privacy, which led to the launch of the Global Network Initiative. He also helped create the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, a collaborative initiative of more than 100 ICT companies improving conditions in their supply chains. Dunstan participated in the process of creating the Global Reporting Initiative G3 guidelines, and is a regular commentator on issues of corporate accountability, reporting, and human rights. He also co-authored the 2010 book, Big Business, Big Responsibilities. Prior to joining BSR in 2004, Dunstan was part of British Telecommunications’ corporate responsibility team.
Would you please share a bit about your background and how you came to BSR?
I joined BSR 16 years ago. Prior to that, I spent five years with the Sustainability Team at BT – British Telecom – and that was between 1999 and 2004. So that was when corporate responsibility, business and human rights, was a very, very new and recent agenda. So, I was fortunate enough to work at a company that wanted to experiment, wanted to try things out for the first time. And then, when a technology and corporate responsibility job at BSR became available sixteen years ago, I applied for it and joined, sixteen years ago. I was very fortunate to have worked for a company that was doing things at the cutting edge and so that lent itself to joining BSR
Prior to BT I was a student activist in the British Student Movement, campaigning on issues of climate change, labor rights, and human rights and business.
At BSR one of your titles is Vice President. Would you please share a bit about what that means in terms of your work and responsibilities?
There are three things. I’ll start narrow and grow broad. The narrow bit is my area of expertise, which is technology and human rights. I spent a lot of my time working with our larger technology companies like Facebook and Google, but also Microsoft, Salesforce, and a number of telecom companies, on their human rights due diligence, policies, and clients.
Moving out broader from that, I oversee the people cluster. That includes the human rights, inclusive economy, and women’s empowerment program areas. That third one, women’s empowerment, is in the process of being broadened out to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
At the highest level, I sit on our Engagement & Leadership Team that sets the direction of BSR’s programs, budgets, and strategy. That role involves thinking broadly across all of BSR. Rather than thinking about what we need to do on human rights, inclusive economy, or women’s empowerment, it is “what is the rights strategy for BSR overall, where should we be making investments, where should we be focusing on program areas in order to achieve impact and be a successful organization, how do we think about that geographically, or global footprint” – all the types of things that come with running an organization.
So, I think of it in sort of three levels, getting less specific with each step.
Since BSR is a non-profit, albeit one that’s organized somewhat differently from most, what does it mean to be a part of the leadership team?
That’s a good question because being part of that leadership team means managing the organization for both impact and financial sustainability. And sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the two are somehow in tension with one another. So, for example, that there are low-impact, high-revenue activities, and high-impact low-revenue activities. Our job is to bring the two together and find ways to maximize our impact through activities that are also financially sustainable. And in fact, what we tend to find, is that we generate more income, more revenue, more sales, from our higher-impact activities because companies and others are willing to fund things that achieve impact.
That’s how I think about it – in terms of our overall theory of change and business model to achieve impact. So that means looking across a range of performance indicators for the organization. So, impact indicators as well as financial ones, employee ones, and that type of thing.
Prior to coming to BSR, as you said, you worked at BT’s Sustainability Office. How does the impact of these in-house offices differ from that of BSR’s relative independence?
There are some similarities. Both working at BSR and working inside for a corporate responsibility/sustainability team at a company, both are change roles. You have to thing trhgoth impact, you have to think through how to make change, you have to understand the subject matter you’re working with but also how to make things happen inside a company.
So those things are similar. I would say one major thing that I feel is different is when you work in-house at a company, it’s very easy to see the world through the lens of that company. So, you’re looking at everything that’s going on in the world around you, but you’re really looking at it through the lens of that company. I find at BSR that’s flipped on its head. So, we’re looking at the company through the perspective of the world around it.
So, that for me has been the major thing that’s different. I guess it’s a more dispassionate view, it’s a broader view, it’s a view where the company is placed in a broader context. Versus when you’re working inside a company, the company is very focused on how to achieve success at that company, and you get very focused on that particular company’s business model.
At BSR and working in-house for a company, is the idea of achieving for a company’s business model the same? Does BSR match a company’s goal of improving their revenue?
In terms of how we think about our own planet?
More in terms of when you’re working with a company. I understand that increasing revenue may be one of a company’s goals for working with BSR, but does BSR have that same level of interest in increasing a company’s revenue? Or is that perhaps another difference between BSR and in-house corporate responsibility offices?
So, when we work with in-house offices, in-house teams, we definitely need to frame our recommendations in terms of the business case for that company – how they can achieve business success. However, we also need to frame our recommendations in terms of what is absolutely the right thing to do. So, what would the UN Guiding Principles say the company needs to do.
I think when you’re inside the company, the balance between those things is a little bit different. The business success of the company weighs a little more heavily on your shoulders because that’s who your employer is, that’s who you spend every day with. Obviously, companies make decisions because it’s the right thing to do, often, not just because there’s a business case, and I think that’s an important to highlight about the culture of a company. But the pressure is different. It weighs more heavily on your shoulders when you’re inside the company.
There was something else I was going to add…It escapes me. I think, at BSR, we absolutely need to give advice that’s consistent with the business model of that company, but we’re also not constrained by the internal politics of that company.
Sometimes, inside companies you may have different departments and different teams that are more or less wedded to different business models. At BSR, we can be a little bit dispassionate to that. So, a company may change its investment priorities from season-to-season or from CEO-to-CEO and we’re less attached to the interests one particular apartment, one particular person within a company.
Since BSR operates in this niche where it’s both a business consulting organization but also a social responsibility advocate, can you speak to the strengths BSR has or benefits it brings to this niche? Also, are there any specific challenges?
One of the things that’s really struck me, having been at BSR for sixteen years and is really easy for me to say – and it will sound like – “Dunstan would say that, wouldn’t he?” But I genuinely believe it, is being a non-profit, having been founded as a non-profit, creates a certain culture, a set of values, and a purpose for doing what we do, that is different than if we weren’t a non-profit. If we were just a for-profit consulting organization that worked with companies on sustainability issues, I don’t think we’d end up with the same culture that we do now.
So that has an impact on who we hire, the types of people who we attract, the types of values they bring to their work, the kinds of recommendations they make to companies. So, I think it’s a big advantage in terms of creating a purpose-driven organization, and one where we have a sense of direction.
In terms of a challenge, I think there are some things we would like to do for reasons of impact that we can’t do because we simply don’t have the time. A good example would be: there are lots of consultations on things. The United Nations might run a consultation on Human Rights and conflict-based approaches. The Global Reporting Initiative might run a consultation on the future of the Global Reporting Initiative’s standards. We cannot possibly participate in all of those. So, we have to pick and choose how we spend our time.
Now, a for-profit organization would go through the same thing, but our think our big non-profit values are our instinct is to always to be everywhere. We want to be everywhere; we want to have more impact. So, there’s this sort of instinct to say yes to everything. So sometimes we can spread ourselves to thin by taking on too many things and do everything not nearly as well as we could if we focused on a few things.
Some things, like the UN example I just gave, are a yes. Other cases like the GRI are at times a “maybe”, other times they’ve been a “no”. You just end up having limits on how much you can do.
Compared to organizations that are more grassroots or organization that deal with government and social issues, what advantages does working with businesses have?
We had a call this morning – for the purpose of this public blog it’s an unnamed organization – and what was particularly interesting was the complementarity of what we both bring to the table. So, they were saying “we know a huge amount about racial equity and racial justice in the United States. We have a very strong opinion on changes we want to see happen in the United States” – a much better-informed opinion than BSR’s.
They’re having a huge surge in interests in companies but aren’t necessarily informed or savvy enough on how to create change inside of companies to make the most of this moment. We don’t have the insights into racial equity and racial justice that *this organization* has but we know how to create change indie of companies, and that’s the great advantage we bring: “how do you work with policies, teams, culture, management systems, inside of companies, to create change.”
Just to finish the thought, the story I just told I could’ve said for pretty much any human rights or privacy-oriented organizations. The story keeps coming through that we’re not necessarily the subject-matter experts in everything, but we know how to get stuff done inside companies, and that’s the role that we play.
As you mentioned, since 2011 or thereabouts, BSR’s work has been heavily influenced by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. I’m wondering if the work at BSR substantively changed since the writing of these principles? If so, how?
It’s changed quite a bit in the sense that it’s become much more deliberate and methodical. Prior to the UNGPs, a lot of what’s now in the UNGPs existed but just as a sort of – informal is the wrong word – but it was a practice that hadn’t been written down. It hadn’t been specifically codified in a set of principles or guidelines.
So inevitably in 2011 when the UNGPs were first published, it took some time for us to move from the way we were doing things before, to everything being done strictly in accordance with the UNGPs. And I would say – to be strictly candid – that’s a decade of work to really understand every dotted ‘i’, every crossed ‘t’ to really understand about how to apply the UN Guided Principles, and we are still learning. But it has been a process of being more consistent and formal in our processes and in our analysis. So how certain terms are used, how certain contexts are used, and how human rights are becoming much more deliberate as a result of using the UNGPs.
I think in terms of my experience and basic knowledge, it seems the UNGPs on Business and Human Rights are unique in that they come from the UN and do address, specifically, an entity outside of the states. Do you see this kind of address to businesses being built upon in the future, or even a different, non-state and non-business entity being addressed in a similar way moving forward?
So, one thing I think is especially interesting is the UNGPs were written partly for government, partly for business. But it was an entirely voluntary set of guidelines. It doesn’t alter the legal framework in which companies operate, it doesn’t give new legal requirements on business, it’s just a set of guidelines.
But what’s interesting is overtime the way in which that is being and will be built into law. So, there are discussions in the European Union to make due diligence a requirement of business. A number of other entities like the OECD and GRI have integrated the UNGPs into their standards. And so, what started off as “here’s a voluntary effort that doesn’t change the legal framework for companies” will be built into law in ways that will change the legal framework for companies. And so, I think that’s one particularly interesting element, and a testament to the UNGPs – that those laws are being drafted based on what the UNGPs actually say.
I do think…this was a set of guidelines directed at a non-state actor, particularly business as the actor, but we’ve been asked questions like “how might universities apply the UNGPs?” And we haven’t really found an answer to that question.
“How might research institutions apply the UNGPs?”, “What’s the role of civil society organizations?”
You can imagine other discussions happening. There’s an idea that’s been mulling around in my mind that’s – “should there be a fourth pillar of the UNGPs, which is the “shared opportunity to promote the fulfillment and realization of human rights. So, it’s not about the role of government or the role of business, it’s about things in combination.
One of BSR’s public lines is “the business case for human rights”. Would you please explain what this case is and if it’s a viable case in the long-term?
First thing to say is that ultimately there shouldn’t need to be a business case for human rights. Human rights should be a sort of a prerequisite to doing business. SO, ultimately, we should always rest on the ethics case.
However, it is important in business terms to have a business case for human rights. One framing point, I would say, is there’s not one single business case. There are lots of different business cases and it varies from company to company, depending on which industry they’re in and what products they sell. So, in the technology industry, user-trust might be a significantly business case. If you don’t do the right thing by way of privacy, by way of content standards, you will begin to lose the trust of your users or your advertisers. Right, we can see what’s going on with Facebook.
On the other hand, if you’re a heavy manufacturing company, the business case might be very different. You might think in terms of health, safety, and wellness of your workforce and the notion that a healthy workforce whose rights are being respected are going to be more productive over time and the business case is going to vary from company-to-company.
I think the business cases will get stronger over time. So, as we move towards a world where there’s more disruption as a result of climate change or governments change policies in ways that increasingly respect human rights – I hope that we move in that direction – then that should strengthen the business case. So, if human rights due diligence does become a mandatory requirement, that changes the business case because companies that don’t comply with that law might receive finds, lose reputation, lose user trust, that kind of thing.
Some people working within the human rights field seem to avoid working with businesses, at times advocating against them and arguing that core human rights principles like equality can’t exist in a capitalist system. I’m wondering what you think of these arguments. Can you create system-wide change while engaging with businesses?
I think engaging with business is essential to have system-wide change. I like the fact that we have lots of different organizations that play different roles in creating change. So, BSR works with business, our hand is significantly strengthened by the fact that there are advocacy organizations that won’t work with business.
So, I tend to think that they can work in combination. However, I do tend to think that we have to deal with the world as we find it. You can’t wish business to disappear. It is here and it’s with us. So, to create the change we want to see, we have to work with business.
I also feel that it’s easy to criticize business and not appreciate the way in which products we use every day, jobs we have as individuals are created by business. And that there is this constant role that business plays in society.
Who is it who says, “my job is to save capitalism from itself?” Is it, did Elizabeth Warren say that? I’m kind of in that school that I want to see a very different type of capitalism, but I’m still a capitalist. I still believe in the role of business in creating value, products, services, jobs – but in a way that is much more forcefully regulated than the world in which we live – today.
I would love to see free healthcare for everybody and a better education system and addressing the homeless issue and the more even distribution of wealth and a more progressive tax system. And I’m a capitalist. I think all those things can exist and be.
To close, what would you say to people like me – and probably many people in the U.S. – who grew up believing that Human Rights and Justice are at the core of our society but are continuing to learn and encounter that these principles may actually not be given and must be fought for?
I would say keep fighting. I think those principles have to be at the center of everything we do. I have been in this field for – what -depending on how you count, twenty to twenty-five years, right? There are things that seem obvious today and accepted practice today in business that did not exist when I started. So, it’s easy to forget the progress that has been made.
So, pick climate change activities by companies. Think of labor standards in supply chains, think of the work companies are doing to address hate speech…none of that was happening twenty, twenty-five years ago. Some of it wasn’t safe to challenge either. But there’s a heck of a lot going on now than twenty-five years ago, and a lot more still needs to change.
So, I would just emphasize that long game – that there are going to be ups and downs along the way, but we need to keep fighting for what we believe in and keep advocating for that.
I guess the point is that it’s easy to get dispirited in the moment, when a particular change doesn’t happen, or we see change move backwards. But actually, over time, the trajectory has been a positive one.
And it’s easy to sort of blame business for everything and not think about the broader context in which business exists. So, thinking in terms of the entire system of justice and the role of business in that system of justice, rather than thinking that it’s business alone that we need to worry about – all we need to do is fix business and everything else would be okay.
A quick follow-up question – I wonder, as there is some division in how people see the best way to go about achieving things like justice and human rights, if you have any insights or recommendations for – anyone – but especially college-aged students – on how they can stay engaged and – in a sense – educate themselves so that they are in effect working in a way that can be impactful.
So, I’m a big fan of experiential learning – so learning through experience and seeing the world through a wide variety of different perspectives. So, I would, even though I ended up in a business and corporate responsibility profession, most change in the world is not going to happen in my profession.
Most change is going to happen by people taking their values into all the other professions that exist. So, my advice would be to follow the area that you are passionate about in terms of subject matter, product, industry, geography, whatever it might be, and try to bring the values that you have to that place. Because the people in the corporate responsibility world, business and human rights world, need those partners elsewhere in order for change to happen.
And some of the most effective change agents I’ve seen are not people in corporate responsibility world at all, they’re people in other roles that have the resources to make things happen.