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Protecting human rights: the role of good governance

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 21 May 2021

When it comes to business, the issue of human rights is no longer someone else’s problem. That’s certainly the view of Sara Brennan, Positive Business Director at Pentland Brands.

It’s Brennan’s job to look at how Pentland and its portfolio of consumer-facing brands, which includes Speedo, Berghaus and Mitre, can turn the rhetoric on sustainable business into practical action that benefits both people and the planet.

“My role is to look at how Pentland and its brands can accelerate our positive business strategy at corporate level but it’s also about making positive business relevant to our brands, who can also drive the biggest impact among consumers,” Brennan says.

As new cases of worker exploitation and malpractice continue to hit the headlines, the treatment of workers in the supply chains of world-class leading brands is no longer something they can turn a blind eye to. According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, 40.3 million people were subjected to modern slavery, including 24.9 million people subjected to forced labour. 

Brennan says doing business responsibly has long been in Pentland’s DNA. In fact, the company was one of the first signatories of the UN Global Compact, “but it’s not something we’ve necessarily spoken about before. Part of our positive business strategy is how we start talking about some of the issues we face as a business and as brands, to encourage others to take action too.”

It’s a strategy no doubt driven by the recognition that socially-conscious consumers will increasingly vote with their feet, more so perhaps since the pandemic, Brennan suggests. “I think that consumers are looking to brands that offer them solutions to some of the guilt they perhaps feel when they are purchasing products.”

At the same time, the ethical conduct of business is a far bigger consideration for both employees, investors and other stakeholders, Brennan believes. “Issues like sustainability and modern slavery may have once been seen as an add on to many businesses, but it’s now recognised that it’s essential to doing business ethically and with respect for people and our planet.”

Pentland’s positive business strategy focuses on eight of the UN’s 17 sustainable business goals where it believes it can make the biggest difference. “It means our actions are really focused and we try to make a tangible difference against those eight SDGs.” The specific focus on UN SDG 8 - decent work for all - is underpinned by publication each year of both a robust Modern Slavery Report and a Positive Business Report. “It means Pentland stays accountable to the goals its setting and sets out the role and responsibility towards its supply chain,” Brennan explains.

Despite the temptation to try to do everything at once, focusing on areas where you can drive the biggest impact is a good rule of thumb, Brennan advises. “The challenge is knowing when to say no. We’re really passionate about these issues and it can be difficult to say no but it’s about doing it in a way that allows us to drive impact.”

And while data is fundamental to gauging the success of any ESG initiatives, Brennan admits striving to collate perfect information isn’t always helpful. “You can get lost in that and it can actually hinder you from taking action. “If you don’t have perfect data, you can still act; work off industry data, there are assumptions you can make and tools that can help you get a good understanding of the problem.” Pentland is a member of the Sustainable Fashion Coalition, which Brennan says has useful tools to help drive decisions about materials that have a lower environmental impact. “The more that we know about our products and the way we manufacture, the more we can do to take action,” Brennan says.

Brennan says brands are today much more conscious of the need for transparency around the ethical trade credentials of the supply chain. At Pentland that has translated to the publication of factory lists, data on freedom of association and the gender makeup of its factories. “Our modern slavery report talks about the progress we’ve made but also areas we’ve identified that could be improved. The more transparent businesses are, the more that will drive change across the industry.”

Engaging everyone in the business on your ESG journey will pay dividends. In practical terms, that’s about making sustainable business practices relevant to everyone regardless of their role. The recent launch of positive business squads at Pentland has allowed employees across the business to get involved. “If you’re not directly involved in supply chain or designing products, we’ve been able to offer alternative ways for people to get involved, so having employee-led action has been really positive.”

The good news for business is it is perfectly possible to embrace the UN SDGs and drive success and keep shareholders happy, Brennan says. “We see this very much part of our game plan for growth. It provides that day-to-day governance for our brands but it also helps us think about how we can make positive business relevant. Investment in this stuff should not be seen as an impact on cost.”

Fortunately fewer organisations are turning to ESG as a gratuitous opportunity for PR, Brennan believes. The trick to avoid falling into that trap is to be authentic, she urges. “I don’t think that the greenwashing I saw a few years ago is as easy to do now because there is more information out there about businesses and brands. Consumers are savvy and do their research.”

Brennan admits tackling issues such as modern slavery head on isn’t easy but says inaction is no longer an option. “It can be a scary subject and it can be difficult to know where to start.” You don’t need to have all the answers but you do need to start asking the questions because there’s only so long that businesses can turn a blind eye to these things, Brennan warns. “Starting somewhere, even if it’s small, is better than not doing anything at all.”

Hear more at Virtually Live!

ICAEW's flagship three-day digital conference returns for 2021 with a session exploring the importance of trust in business, as well as sessions on protecting human rights and fraud risks.

ICAEW's flagship digital conference returns for 2021. Virtually Live will be held on 15-17 June 2021
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