Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business
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large companies heed human rights agenda

May 2000

More than a third of the world’s largest 500 companies have decided not to proceed with a proposed investment project because of human rights concerns – and one in five have disinvested from a country because of similar worries, a new study suggests.

A survey of the Fortune 500 companies by the UK-based Ashridge Centre for Business and Society revealed that 36 per cent of respondents had scrapped investment plans on human rights grounds and 19 per cent had disinvested for the same reason.

The Ashridge survey received responses from 52 of the Fortune 500, of which 27 were European companies, 21 from the US, and four from the rest of the world.

Ashridge director Andrew Wilson said the study showed multinationals may be taking human rights issues more seriously than is commonly believed.

However, he warned that an ad hoc approach to such issues was not enough, and added that only a small number of companies ‘have equipped themselves to manage systematically the physical and reputational risks that human rights present’.

Although 51 of the companies who responded had a code of ethics or statement of business principles, only 22 of these made explicit reference to human rights. Roughly half of those who did not explicitly refer to human rights said they planned to do so in the near future.

The study, Business responses to human rights, also found that:

31 of the companies had someone responsible for human rights, who may be a dedicated human rights manager (five companies), a board-level director (a further five), or a senior manager (16).

firms in the mining, oil and gas industries were ‘setting the pace’ on human rights

23 companies made efforts to ensure contractors, suppliers and business associates had relevant policies on human rights.

The Ashridge study coincided with the launch of guidelines on human rights produced by the Amnesty International Business Group and the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum.

Human rights – is it any of your business? presents case studies on how some companies – such as Shell, Rio Tinto, Reebok and Levi Strauss – have tried to deal with human rights problems.


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