Human rights are fundamental – the bedrock of society. Yet, our society is constantly confronted with risks to those rights, and digital rights issues have been prominent in this discussion.
In this dialogue, Michela Gregory of NEI Investments and Anita Dorett of the Investor Alliance for Human Rights discuss the benefits of investor collaboration on human rights issues, especially in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector.
The Investor Alliance for Human Rights is a collective action platform for responsible investment that is grounded in respect for people’s fundamental rights. Investors have a responsibility to respect human rights, in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. The Investor Alliance has published the Investor Toolkit on Human Rights specifically for asset owners and managers to address risks to people posed by their investments. This toolkit provides the building blocks for investors to create their approach to addressing human rights risks within their organization and in relation to their investment activities.
Anita: Collaborating on human rights issues brings many benefits. By sharing knowledge and experience, investors can increase their understanding of human rights risks connected to portfolio companies, and how this is critical to long-term portfolio value. Collaboration increases investors’ leverage to push companies to undertake human rights due diligence that will enable rights-respecting business practices. It allows investors to engage with a broader set of portfolio companies through using shared resources.
The Investor Alliance also provides a platform for investors to converse with civil society organizations advocating for adversely impacted rightsholders. This collaboration provides insight into the human rights risks and resulting harms that will help inform investors’ engagements.
Michela: In the course of our engagements, one challenge we’ve noted is that company attitudes toward human rights engagements can vary greatly. For investors to fulfill their responsibility to respect human rights, they must understand how their portfolio companies are responding to potential and real human rights impacts, and investors (and other stakeholders) are asking for robust reporting.
Sometimes companies who may be ahead of their peers in addressing human rights impacts are more inclined to limit their public disclosures. Others may have strong commitments, but their actions are hard to assess due to limited disclosure. Collaboration in multi-stakeholder forums can allow investors to amplify informed, clear asks of investees. This is especially important as we are still in the midst standardizing disclosure expectations, even with resources such as the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework that provide guidance
Anita: Disclosure is a critical point, particularly when we talk about gaps in disclosure. The growing influence of the ICT sector has reconfigured every aspect of our lives, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, Meta’s business model relies almost entirely on advertisement revenue, accounting for almost 98% of its global revenue in 2020. Meta relies on artificial intelligence (AI) that uses algorithmic systems to deliver targeted advertisements. However, there is little public disclosure on how these systems operate to determine the ads a user sees, nor whether there are any potential or real resulting human rights risks.
This past proxy season, investors filed a proposal with Meta asking them to conduct a Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) on their targeted advertising policies and practices. The proposal secured 23.8% of the vote, which represents over 77% of the “independent” vote, once shares controlled by the CEO are discounted. This should send a clear message to the company that investors are demanding more on human rights. Similar proposals asking for HRIAs on various aspects of business operations or relationships were filed at Alphabet and Amazon, also with strong support from independent shareholders.
Investors recognize that respect for people and planet is at the core of long-term value creation. Assessing human rights risk in their portfolio requires investors to ask their portfolio companies to do the same. Companies should take an iterative approach to ensure their decisions on all aspects of operations and value-chain relationships account for and prevent adverse impacts on stakeholders and rightsholders.
But uptake of human rights due diligence has been slow and disappointing. The Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, which assesses the human rights performance of the 230 largest publicly traded companies in high-risk sectors, revealed that as of 2020, nearly half the companies scored zero on all five human rights due diligence indicators. More than 200 global investors representing over US$5.8 trillion in AUM, brought together by our organization, sent a statement to 106 companies calling for urgent action to implement human rights due diligence. Some investors indicated that in the absence of improvement, they would be prepared to invoke the proxy process to motivate laggards.
Michela: Even as we see more disclosure on human rights commitments, there is still much that companies are not disclosing about how they are implementing policies. Disclosure can help investors verify the type of action companies are taking on human rights issues. This is becoming an expectation, as we see regulations being passed in jurisdictions such as the European Union.
Collaborating with like-minded investors positions us and companies for more mutually effective engagements. Of course, one of the key asks is for more disclosure around how companies are actioning their human rights commitments and policies. Through collaboration, we can increase our ability to make a meaningful impact.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view or position of the Responsible Investment Association (RIA). The RIA does not endorse, recommend, or guarantee any of the claims made by the authors. This article is intended as general information and not investment advice. We recommend consulting with a qualified advisor or investment professional prior to making any investment or investment-related decision.