Business Discovers its Human Rights Handprint

Similar to a carbon footprint, which measures an enterprise’s greenhouse gas emissions, the human rights footprint of companies has been scrutinized for many years. Business’ human rights footprint includes the labor practices of a company, its supply chain or the financial support that knowingly or unknowingly is provided to oppressive regimes through commercial engagement.

While by definition some degree of a footprint is unavoidable, focus has traditionally been aimed at mitigating or minimizing harm. While companies will continue to be pressured by activists asking them to examine and manage their human rights footprint risks, perhaps it is time for business to evaluate their human rights handprint opportunities.

Unlike a footprint, a handprint implies much more deliberate intent. If I reach out to grasp something or shake someone’s hand, I have done so out of a personal decision, obligation or opportunity. In other words, a company’s footprint measures its conduct and impact while its handprint equates to its intentions and influence.

Companies have long recognized that a shaky human rights footprint will cause any number of risks ranging from within operations to reputation. However, today, they should anticipate even greater expectations of their own conduct and practices; as stakeholders – including current and prospective employees, shareholders and consumers – evaluate corporations by their social and human rights footprint, among other factors.

Companies can prepare for these growing expectations by merely crafting new corporate edicts and policies, which are followed by additional box-ticking and auditing - or they could adopt a more entrepreneurial leadership approach.

Wal-Mart provides an apt example with regards to its environmental footprint. The company set very broad goals in areas ranging from energy to packaging. In addition to changing its own practices, Wal-Mart turned to its vendors and suppliers and said: “You want to be one of our most valued business partners? Help us figure this out.”

There are a number of human rights handprint expectations and actions that companies can, and have had to, consider.


Do more than just “No harm”

In the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, human rights campaigning around the Beijing Olympics provided businesses with an important lesson, albeit a lesson-through-omission.

The 2008 Games were certainly not the first time that the Olympics have been politicized, or that corporate sponsors have been criticized. The Athens Games called on the sportswear industry to eliminate child labor practices from its supply chain and the Sydney Games saw Coca-Cola pilot new environmentally friendly refrigeration technology based on both pressure and partnership from Greenpeace.

In 2008, human rights drove Mia Farrow’s campaign for Darfur; human rights triggered Steven Spielberg’s pull-out as creative consultant to the Games; human rights led to the assault on torch bearers in Paris; human rights had European politicians flip-flopping over attending the opening ceremony; and human rights caused the arrest of several Chinese and international human rights activists during the Games.

In the lead up to the Beijing Games, Olympic sponsors were not being criticized for their own conduct, but were asked to apply their own handprint by imparting positive influence on the Chinese government over alleged human rights abuses in Darfur and Tibet.


Create Incentives for Change

Rules matter and regulations are needed, but real behavior change comes from incentive. The trick is to give people -inside and outside your company a reason to care about human rights. They will respond with unadulterated self-interest, as well as innovations that would have never occurred to you.

Forty years ago, car companies resisted installing seatbelts in cars because, they thought, it would make their product appear unsafe. Today, car companies spend millions of dollars on ads that depict a typical family (played by crash-test dummies) in a car that is hurtling towards a brick wall at 70 miles per hour. What was once an unspoken risk – car crashes – has been embraced and flipped into a product and marketing distinction: safety.

Images of happy garment factory workers may never replace supermodels on the billboards of a fashion company. But, what if a product’s human rights profile could be added to the list of consumer consideration drivers alongside quality, price and dependability?

What if an industrial product manager’s annual performance and salary review included measurements of a project’s human rights impact? What if in the war for talent, employers could not only lure candidates with salary and benefit packages, but could also credibly assure them that they would be joining a company that they could be proud to work for?

In any of these cases, is caring for human rights a risk, or an opportunity?


Pay attention to the poor and oppressed today. They’ll be paying customers tomorrow.

Google and Yahoo came under criticism in the US and Europe recently for their alleged complicity in the Chinese government’s violation of its own citizens’ human rights. Google was attacked for censoring its Web search results; and Yahoo was accused of providing information that enabled the Chinese to arrest a journalist who criticized the government. Both companies weathered blistering assaults from activists, politicians and the elite media in Washington, Brussels, New York and London.

However, very few people asked: “What does the average Chinese citizen think?” In recent years, largely because of new social media tools, Chinese people have been allowed to develop some measure of a public voice on a variety of topics, ranging from corrupt government officials to a number of environmental crises; such as one that contaminated a large part of the country’s north-eastern water supply. The Chinese people feel increasingly more comfortable and empowered to form and voice their own perspective on who they trust, and what institutions they view as credible.

Therefore, Google should not merely “do the right thing” about human rights in China so as to please European and American activists; they should do so in order to win and keep the trust of Chinese Web users who could just as easily type their searches into


By definition, a focus on human rights is cyclical with up’s and down’s and spikes connected to specific crises or current events. But we may be entering the beginning of an era of longer term systemic change in how companies think about, approach and influence human rights.

Companies are increasingly realizing that they are not only expected to “do no harm” across their human rights footprint; they are also expected to “do good” with their handprint.

Chris Deri is CEO and Market Leader for Burson-Marsteller China, where he is also the Asia Pacific Regional CSR Practice Leader.  Previously, Chris served as the Executive Vice President and Global Practice Leader for Edelman’s CSR & Sustainability practice.  He has advised decision makers and senior leaders of global corporations, NGOs and governments on strategic solutions that address social, environmental and public health issues.