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Respect human rights

Strategy and goals

In our own operations, and through all our business relationships, everything we do is underpinned by a deep and unfaltering commitment to respect and promote all internationally recognised human rights.

The foundation of a fairer, more inclusive society

The world we want to see will be a fairer, more socially inclusive one – and that can only be achieved if human rights are respected, everywhere.

Woman wearing a Unilever t-shirt at our factory in Brazil

Respect for human rights is a basic, fundamental requirement for our business. Increasing traceability and transparency and taking a people-focused, risk-based approach to identify and address any human rights impacts ultimately improves the resilience of our supply chain. But it’s also an enabler. It helps drive the changes we want to see to create a fairer society – changes we describe in Raise living standards and Equity, diversity and inclusion. And it’s key to bringing about equity, because it tackles the underlying, often systemic inequalities in opportunity and access that hold people back.

We published our first Human Rights Report in 2015, followed by our Progress Report in 2017 and our Human Rights Report 2020. All align with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights reporting framework.

Respecting human rights and tackling abuses

Despite our commitment to respecting human rights, we know that human rights abuses exist in the sectors and markets in which we operate – and at times, in our own value chain. These abuses are unacceptable – and we're determined to address them.

We’re tackling issues and upholding and promoting human rights in three main ways.

  • In our business

    First, by upholding our values and standards and embedding respect for human rights across our own business.

  • With our suppliers and business partners

    Second, by embedding respect for human rights in our relationships with our suppliers and other business partners, so that it underpins how our products are sourced, made and sold. Our Responsible Sourcing Policy (RSP) and Responsible Business Partner Policy (RBPP) are key to this work. Also key is our commitment to ensuring that workers who directly provide us with goods and services receive a living wage or income.

  • Through advocacy and collaboration

    And last but not least, our approach includes advocating the respect and promotion of human rights and working with others to drive change, including through initiatives such as the UN Global Compact, the Consumer Goods Forum and the Institute for Human Rights and Business. This work is outlined below, and in our Human Rights Report 2020.

Business has to take action to tackle the issues of unfairness and exploitation: respecting human rights must be the foundation of any business that’s built to last.

Rachel Cowburn-Walden, our Global Human Rights Director

Our Unilever Compass goals

Our latest goals build on the targets we set through our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, namely to advance human rights across our operations and extended supply chain, create a framework for fair compensation and improve employee health and safety. These targets informed our actions and the new goals we developed as part of our Unilever Compass.

Led from the top: our human rights governance

Our human rights governance is led from the top, overseen by our CEO and supported by our Unilever Leadership Executive (ULE), the most senior leaders of our business. As well as providing strategic direction, the ULE is consulted on human rights issues when the severity of an actual or potential impact is high, where a business-critical decision needs to be taken, or where substantial financial investment may be needed to address an impact. Additional Board-level oversight is provided by the Corporate Responsibility Committee.

Monitoring third-party compliance to the standards of our Responsible Sourcing Policy (RSP) and Responsible Business Partner Policy (RBPP) is delivered by our Business Integrity function.

A strong policy framework underpins our work

Our policy framework is an essential basis for embedding human rights into our business. It helps us set clear and consistent expectations and allows us to drive compliance and positive behaviour that’s aligned with our values.

Our policies enable our employees to work with partners, governments, community leaders and other stakeholders to push standards and boundaries where needed, and help us operationalise the UN Guiding Principles. Our full policy framework is described in our Human Rights Report 2020; we’ve listed all our key policies in our Sustainability Reporting Centre.

Identifying and acting on salient human rights issues

Our approach is in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). We use the UNGPs to underpin our own high standards of corporate behaviour: they help us to identify and tackle systemic causes of abuse, and to work collaboratively and openly with others.

Since endorsing the UNGPs in 2011, we've taken a phased approach to analysing our risks and opportunities and embedding respect for human rights into everything we do. This crucial work has meant we’re able to move from 'doing no harm' to 'doing good'.

Following the UNGPs has helped us focus on our ‘salient’ human rights issues (PDF 9.45 MB) – that is, those issues that are at risk of the most severe negative impacts through our activities or business relationships.

Leading the way through collaborative action

As well as taking direct action to address human rights issues in our value chain, we’re working with others to help create the lasting, systemic changes needed to make a positive difference.

Partnerships with other companies and trade unions, as well as multistakeholder initiatives – give us opportunities to increase our positive impact. By drawing on the research, access, expertise and scale of our stakeholders and partners, we can learn more, make better decisions and drive change faster.

Key collaborations driving change

Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) Social Sustainability Committee: drives global collaboration between retailers and manufacturers in identifying and tackling key social sustainability issues such as the eradication of forced labour. We are members of CGF and participate actively in its committees including the Human Rights Coalition – Working to End Forced Labour and the Sustainable Supply Chain Initiative (SSCI), focused on providing clear guidance to buyers and suppliers in the consumer goods industry on third-party auditing and certification schemes that cover sustainability requirements and apply relevant governance and verification.

World Economic Forum (WEF): we sit on the WEF Global Future Councils on: Human Rights; Equity and Social Justice; Future of Work; Transparency and Anti-corruption. We have worked with the WEF to incorporate human rights considerations into mainstream discussions, including those of other WEF councils.

AIM-Progress: promotes responsible sourcing practices and sustainable supply chains for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) manufacturers with common suppliers. We are members of the Human Rights Steering Group, providing strategic direction to the organisation and we co-chair the Living Wage working group.

Institute for Human Rights and Business: we were a founding member of the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, which works towards the eradication of recruitment fees and related costs and the responsible recruitment of migrant workers.

Business for Inclusive Growth (B4IG): we are members of the working groups on Human rights; Building an inclusive recovery; Inclusive sourcing; and Impact measurement.

Listening, learning and taking action

Being a truly responsible and socially sustainable business requires meaningfully engaging with, listening to and learning from rights-holders in order to collaboratively solve issues. We welcome stakeholders who contact us with their concerns and we’ll be open in our response.

We realise that in running a business of the size and scale of Unilever, we will not always get things right. We want to hear from people who have concerns, learn from our mistakes and take action, and to make improvements that help us make a positive social impact. It’s an approach that’s embedded in our business values.

Coconut sugar farmer standing in front of a coconut tree.

Providing grievance mechanisms and access to remedy

A core element of our strategy is providing ways for people to raise human rights concerns with us, and ensuring that those issues can be addressed – what’s known as 'access to remedy'.

Grievance mechanisms play a critical role in opening channels for dialogue, problem solving and investigation. They can also help identify country-specific solutions and pre-emptive action.

We encourage individuals and communities to raise any concerns with us directly. On occasions where they feel they aren't able to do this, we would never seek to impede access to state-based judicial or non-judicial mechanisms for those who feel human rights have been impacted, and aim to co-operate as required with competent authorities in investigating or adjudicating alleged human rights impacts.

We’ve strengthened our grievance mechanisms and the ways in which people can gain access to remedy. That includes through our Code of Business Principles procedures, and through our Code Support Line, which is open to third parties. Our RSP includes information on grievance mechanisms (PDF 8.25 MB) , and our specific palm oil grievance mechanism is open to anyone in our palm oil value chain. More detail on the way people in our business and value chain can speak up is described in Human rights in our value chain, and in Business integrity.

Monitoring third-party compliance to the standards of our Responsible Sourcing Policy (RSP) and Responsible Business Partner Policy (RBPP) is delivered by our Business Integrity function.

Looking to the future

The world of work is changing fast. We need to ask ourselves how we put human rights front and centre of new business models – particularly as we contribute to building back better after Covid-19. We know we need to improve our visibility of conditions for workers in our supply chain, including deeper into our supply chains.

We support mandatory due diligence frameworks that address the root causes of human rights violations, lead to real shifts in company practices and bring about positive change on the ground.

We’re building on the ways we hear directly from people on the ground who are or could be impacted by our business. And we know we need to make greater progress on robust social impact metrics.

A robotic arm selects a cardboard package from a stack in a warehouse

The plastic economy is one specific area that’s critical to our future. While the environmental consequences of plastic use are all too clear, there is also a social impact: plastic is frequently collected by people working in the informal economy who don’t earn adequate wages or receive social benefits. To help address this, we’re innovating new business models to ensure that people involved in this industry make a living wage. Our approaches to plastic and automation are both described in our Human Rights Report 2020 (PDF 7.13 MB) .

Addressing salient human rights issues in our value chain helps us build a more resilient business. We’ll continue to make both the moral and the business case for this, while strengthening our internal capability, and the capability of our suppliers and other business partners to own and self-manage issues.

More than ever, it’s critical that whether tackling new challenges or continuing to address the root causes of existing ones, we always take a human rights lens to everything we do.

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