Conversation in Human Rights tackles CEO activism

Whole-panel-400The Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics held this year’s first event in the ongoing “Conversations in Human Rights” series on September 23, focusing on the topic of CEO activism on social issues.

Panelists included John Replogle, the CEO of Seventh Generation (formerly president and CEO of Burt’s Bees) and Professor Edward Freeman, originator of the stakeholder theory and faculty member at UVA’s Darden School of Business. The discussion was moderated by Aaron Chatterji, professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

The panel addressed what seems to be a growing trend in corporate leaders advocating for social change, and the blend that occurs between personal activism and a business’s
brand. Apple’s Tim Cook has been vocal on both issues of privacy and same-sex marriage, while Starbucks’ Howard Schultz recently took heavy criticism for the attempted “#RaceTogether” campaign.

Replogle talked about the current business climate as being one that is incredibly dynamic, and a time when many companies are examining the “why behind the buy.” Many companies strive for what is called the triple bottom line (social, environmental, and financial), and compete for B-Corporation status.

Speaking from personal experience, Replogle remarked that an activist CEO needs to careful, thoughtful, and consistent, to partner with NGOs and community organizations wherever possible, and to figure out what you stand for and build a board that will get on board with that mission.

Freeman iterated that we need a “new narrative” for business, one that isn’t merely
rofit-drive, but is imaginative and allows people to make mistakes. He said that capitalism has the potential to be the greatest system of social cooperation ever invented. But in order to create this new capitalist narrative, business leaders must lead in the purpose of others and make that purpose and those values alive in their everyday decisions.

Following the panelists presentations, audience members and panelists discussed how and why CEOs choose to speak out on certain issues, what percentage of companies are actually changing their behavior, and the differences in practices between publicly-listed and privately-held companies. Panelists and participants discussed some of the ways in which business and law schools could shift understandings about the private sector – both through curricular revisions and by clarifying that companies’ legal obligations are not simply to their shareholders


Conversations in Human Rights series starts up

Panel-sideview 400x300The issue of corporate responsibility and human rights has increasingly become a focus of public debate and media attention. What is the most effective strategy for encouraging corporate respect for human rights? Should the United Nations move forward with the proposed treaty on transnational business and human rights, or should it focus on implementing current voluntary codes of conduct?

These and many other questions were explored September 10th during the first of this year’s Conversations in Human Rights, focused on business and human rights. Sponsored by the Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the series presents different issues with commentary from leading scholars and experts.

Panel participants for this event included Professor Fritz Mayer (Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke), Professor Aseem Prakash (Political Science, University of Washington), and Dr. Puvan Selvanathan (Head of Food and Agriculture at the U.N. Global Compact).

The panel explored the effectiveness of the U.N. Global Compact, a voluntary initiative covering corporate practices with respect to the environment, labor, human rights, and corruption, as well as the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted in 2011. Panelists also debated the potential of the proposed U.N. treaty to motivate corporate compliance and promote discussion of business and human rights issues.

One of the main challenges highlighted by panelists and members of the audience concerned how to properly ensure that best practices are followed throughout complicated global value chains – and specifically how to incentive big firms to facilitate compliance by smaller producers down the chain who may already be under significant production pressure. Panelists discussed whether an information model or enforcement model is better suited to improve corporate practices across the global value chain.

The panel, moderated by DHRC at KIE Project Director Suzanne Katzenstein, also addressed questions from the audience.