The Similarities between Squirrels and Corporations

Wrangling frequently with the topic of lawless corporations during this internship and their often  nonchalant attitude towards human rights reminds me of my dear friends back on campus: the Duke squirrels. I have pretty low expectations for these squirrels–I see them hurl themselves at blinding speeds around tree trunks in a bid to catch their friends, and on numerous occasions they startle me when they erupt from trash cans while nibbling on scraps of overpriced food.

Once, when I was walking from class, a squirrel barreled across my right toes, and dove into some nearby shrubbery. The audacity. These squirrels don’t play by the rules and frankly, they don’t care about the consequences because nobody really has the ability to discipline them

This past week, I researched the strength of human rights work of various corporations. I’ve found myself silently praising corporations that have created a Human Rights policy. I felt a rush of giddiness when I would “command f” the words “human rights” in one of their Annual Sustainability Reports and see that once result came up in the 40 page report.

Upon reflecting, I’m curious as to why I praise corporations for making a passing mention of their “awareness” of human rights and why astronomically low expectations for companies and human rights are normalized in society.

It is saddening, but not that surprising, to realize that corporations address human rights as something more voluntary and more performative than it should be. It seems as if most corporations hesitate to make human rights a priority, and even more don’t have human rights on the docket at all.

Some corporations repeatedly harm the environment, local communities, and the rights of laborers despite the voices of numerous nonprofits calling for accountability. The physical, mental, and emotional detachment from those that corporations harm enables corporations and consumers alike to value the end products of a brutal system over the human rights that were violated in the process of its creation.

In an ideal world, all human rights abuses would be strictly dealt with and respecting human rights would be non-negotiable. However, it’s pretty transparent that this world runs on money and it’s no secret that corporations tend to have a lot more of that than nonprofits do—but perhaps that is just something that is inherent to the core purpose of each entity.

Corporations are made to compete and to dominate the market and collaborating with competitors so that everyone can “win” isn’t necessarily a popular objective. But while some nonprofits may operate like corporations, what I would hope is their ultimate achievement is society progressing past the need for the organization because nonprofit has achieved its mission.

However, even without a clear and labeled hierarchy of power, we know which actors wield the most influence within the ecosystem of businesses, governments, and nonprofits. And it’s no surprise that this often translates into the voices of the marginalized falling upon the voluntarily deaf ears of corporations.

Despite often not being taken seriously by corporations, external actors such as governments and nonprofits are in a position where they are less dependent on corporations than a corporation’s own employees. This detached relationship seems to create a healthier environment for corporate accountability to take place because these external actors may not suffer the same backlash that employees might face for speaking out. However, the power within a corporation is blatantly spelled out and adds a layer of a potentially dangerous power dynamic between upper management and on-the-ground laborers.

Upper management ultimately has direct control of the jobs of the workers and has the choice of whether or not they want to listen to the union—that is, if the formation of a union is even permitted by the corporation. This power dynamic can promote a caustic environment in which employees may have to grapple with which they value more: minimizing the possibility of losing their job or airing a grievance that draws attention to a critical issue that they/their fellow co-workers may be facing.

The risks for a larger disconnect between upper management and laborers are heightened particularly in instances where production is outsourced to a foreign country with loose enforcement of labor laws. Corporations that work with thousands of suppliers (Walmart works with more than 100,000!) also face enormous challenges in ensuring transparency in each and every level of their global supply chains and that their suppliers actually act according to the overarching corporation’s supplier code of conduct.

The Human Rights Team at BSR utilizes the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as well as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a foundation to guide their work. However, there is no legal enforcement of these principles or notable incentives and policies to motivate corporations to create even a basic human rights policy.

While the UDHR is incorporated into the constitution/legal framework of some countries, that—coupled with the idea that respecting human rights is the moral thing to do—is not enough for a company to actively examine how they are approaching the topic of human rights, if at all.

Most corporations need incentives, whether profit, image, or policy-driven, in order to spur them to incorporate human rights into their company’s policy and actions. They want to be seen as more favorable to consumers, more ethically driven than their competitors, and want their ethical actions to generate more profit in the long run. The bottom line is never fully out of the picture.

Perhaps to jump-start short term change, a policy incentive such as the government subsidizing costs for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) for basic HR due diligence and maybe a prestigious title doled out for ethical companies to plaster on their annual reports would spur companies to lead the charge for the prioritization of human rights.

On the other hand, hefty consequences such as substantial fines or a public shaming list released by the government could potentially humble companies into ensuring that basic rights violations are not being perpetuated by their practices. Positive and negative short term motivators could potentially lead to a corporate culture in which it would be unacceptable to not actively engage with human rights. I can’t believe I have to say that.

Policies that actively engage with other actors in the ecosystem such as nonprofits also have the potential to lift the work and voices of nonprofits up. Further benefits for nonprofits such as increased funding might help to lessen the power gap between nonprofits and corporations.

While nonprofits play an essential part in vocalizing the need for corporations to acknowledge and act upon their duty to society, serious communication between businesses and governments is needed in order to ensure that corporations are actually being held accountable.

Guidelines need to be utilized, incentives need to be provided, and policies need to be implemented and enforced. Society should not hold massive, trillion dollar corporations to the same, low level of accountability that we have for mischievous campus squirrels. But with the collaborative work of nonprofit organizations like BSR with some of the largest corporations in the world, society is slowly moving in the right direction. Let’s all work together to make it move just a bit faster.