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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: A Future of Freedom for all Needs Collective Courage

Halla Tómasdóttir

08 Oct 2018

By Halla Tómasdóttir, CEO, The B Team 8 October 2018

“Business cannot succeed if society is failing. And business can never succeed in isolation.”

In this piece, Halla Tómasdóttir, CEO of The B Team shares her thoughts on a recently published B-Team report: Eradicating Modern Slavery: A Guide for CEOs,that aims to provide guidance and role-specific recommendations for CEOs to help end modern slavery. Sherah Beckley, Editor Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

The suffering and exploitation of any person warrants immediate compassionate and collaborative action. And yet, modern slavery persists around the world. In every country. In every industry. At least 40.3 million people are enslaved today. Of these victims, it’s estimated that 16 million are trapped in the supply chains of corporations.

As business leaders, we cannot accept this. These numbers are alarming. But most importantly, these numbers are real people.

Taking action to end modern slavery isn’t just a question of business leadership, it’s a question of moral leadership. Collectively, we all have a responsibility and an opportunity to take a stand for those whose voices are silenced.

At The B Team, we seek to help business leaders realise this role for a fairer and more human world.

The power of the private sector, and of CEOs especially, is immense in helping bring freedom for the millions enslaved. But, for many CEOs, knowing where to start, who to involve and how best to tackle this complex issue is not always clear.

This week, we released Eradicating Modern Slavery: A Guide for CEOs, to provide CEOs with tactical guidance and role-specific recommendations to help end modern slavery. This Guide wasn’t just made with CEOs in mind, but in consultation with CEOs. These included CEO of Unilever and Chair of The B Team, Paul Polman, and B Team Leaders Bob Collymore, CEO of Safaricom, and François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering, as well as experts in the field.

As company leaders, CEOs have the unique ability to set strategy and transform operations. As well-known public figures, they can also speak up and inspire action. It won’t be easy, but it is imperative. It takes courage for a CEO to acknowledge the existence of slavery in their supply chain. And it takes real leadership to do something about it.

It starts with taking a look within your business, in who you choose as suppliers, and going through each to ensure they meet ethical recruitment and employment standards. Of course, this cannot be done alone. It requires bold partnerships and cross-sector action.

We’re working to convene the dialogues and facilitate the partnerships needed to build this due diligence and impactful action. We brought together CEOs, civil society leaders, heads of state and sustainability professionals, to discuss how to best work together to end modern slavery at the Concordia Summit.

The need for collaboration and collective courage throughout the discussion was clear. “We have champions. CEOs. Unions. Civil Society. We need to be there for each other as we try to clean up what is a growing scourge,” Sharan Burrow, Vice-Chair of The B Team and General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said opening the panel discussion.

Her call for collaboration was echoed by Sanda Ojiambo, Head of Corporate Responsibility at Safaricom, “Business cannot succeed if society is failing. And business can never succeed in isolation.” We must remember these words as we work together to address these atrocities.

Business does not have to start from scratch when it comes to developing and implementing policies to address modern slavery.

Civil society, activists and governments are eager to work hand-in-hand with business to drive these solutions. The pervasiveness of this problem calls for sometimes unusual suspects to come together toward a common goal of freedom for all.

And the tools are there for business leaders to engage with workers and map supply chains while looking to key platforms to learn from each other. These include our Guide, KnowTheChain, the UN Global Compact, the Consumer Goods Forum, solutions driven by the Working Capital Fund and more. Now is the time for business to welcome and utilise these resources and the opportunities they offer. Now is the time for shared responsibility and collective courage.

Closing out our session at the Concordia Summit, Paul Polman called on business leaders to take the brave step of acknowledging and understanding the impact of their practices,

“As CEOs we need to ask ourselves some very simple questions: is the way I’m doing business reducing or sustaining poverty? Is it reducing or increasing the likelihood of forced labor? Does the price I pay for the supplies I get equate to fair conditions in our value chain?”

Paul’s an ever-inspiring example of the impact of principled and transformative leadership, helping cement Unilever as a leader in driving responsible business models. But, even more importantly, he has the honesty and humility to acknowledge that despite his and the company’s best efforts to forge these models, slavery likely still exists in Unilever’s supply chains.

“Slavery is a weed that grows on every soil. It’s in every country. It’s in everybody’s supply chain—even in ours. I cannot stand here and say it’s not there,” he said, “I can tell you it will take all the efforts to eradicate it. But I can’t tell you it isn’t there. In fact, I’m pretty sure it is there.”

Paul’s words reinforce the complexity of modern slavery and the need to rely on each other’s expertise and unique roles to take action. For companies, this is a journey. Taking the first step requires bold leadership and collaboration. The work ahead for all of us will be a challenge. But it is one we cannot ignore.

If we fail to tackle this issue, we fail our vision of a sustainable, thriving and free future for all.

Slavery is by no means a relic of the past. But with collective courage and brave leadership, we can make it history.

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