Robin Willoughby is Head of Food and Climate Policy and Campaigns. He has previously led Oxfam International’s Agriculture investment policy and advocacy portfolio and was a consultant researcher on food and environmental security at Chatham House.
The macro level trends are clear. From Oxfam’s report ‘An Economy for the 99%’: ‘The incomes of the poorest 10% of people increased by less than $3 a year between 1988 and 2011, while the incomes of the richest 1% increased 182 times as much.’
We don’t believe businesses want to increase economic inequality, but there is an inherent issue with delivering shareholder returns. The ‘bounty’ that corporations have generated is often not shared; rather it increasingly works predominantly for the rich.
Business doesn’t currently have a constructive narrative on its role in addressing growing economic inequality. It’s partly due to the prevailing business models that are perpetuating problem.
Many businesses are aware of key inequality issues such as egregious human rights abuse in their supply chain but they don’t know how to address them. The first thing business needs to do is to acknowledge the problem, in terms of rising economic inequality and the role of business in either promoting or undermining human rights. The second area is for businesses to put in place a concrete plan to actually address the problem.
Business is concerned about forced labour, modern slavery, child labour, and trafficking but completely at sea as to what to do about it. We need business to put in place a roadmap to move away from illegal practices and towards not just any jobs but quality jobs that enable people to work their way out of poverty.
Businesses are key players in a market economy and when they work to the benefit of all, they can be vital to building fair and thriving societies. Most NGOs are happy to have a constructive dialogue to help companies on ‘the how’ to get to a positive end and develop the roadmap to address it.
Compared with 15 years ago, business has more awareness of issues that NGOs are concerned about. A number of businesses see they are part of the solution and that is also helped by shifts in public opinion and by the fact that the younger generation of graduate recruits are more informed and pushing the issue internally, and the fact that companies have recruited from NGOs.
The main challenge is moving this awareness into proactive action from business. It’s still difficult for many people working in these companies to make the case internally across business and commercial operations. It needs to be moved out of CSR or Ethical Trade Departments, which are fairly isolated, and mainstreamed into commercial operations. Many businesses are fixated on audits and compliance – they continue to push the risks down the supply chain, and maximise margins as a measure of business success.
Hardly any company is doing well yet on the inequality agenda. There are some that are taking useful action including:
- Unilever’s willingness to undertake a labour study with Oxfam in Vietnam on terms that were jointly defined, and its commitment to reduce the number of outsourced jobs in its factories and to employ more people directly;
- The commitment of members of Ethical Tea Partnership to tackle low wages in the tea sector;
- Companies that disclose risks of modern slavery and are very transparent and modest about their approach;
- Advocacy by ETI members to strengthen and support the Modern Slavery Act.
- Many companies appear to be interested in using the SDG framing which is to be encouraged.
In fact, the SDGs have found more traction with business than government. We need to be careful that companies take into account not only the SDGs where they think that they can have a positive impact (i.e. creating win-wins) but also be mindful of where they may be having a negative impact.
What I really love about Oxfam is our reach. We’ve had significant wins in many areas – from securing land rights for vulnerable communities in the Global South, to impacting on international climate negotiations in Copenhagen and Paris. We have also raised issues like inequality up the global agenda. We saw this recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos – where Oxfam continued to highlight growing inequality as an issue of global concern.
I’m also proud of Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign. It’s been a flagship example of how to challenge but also to work with companies to make them better businesses. What I particularly like is that there have been positive concrete policy changes as a result of the campaign. It’s not an anti-corporation campaign; it’s a sophisticated programme of work to generate private sector behaviour change, using all the tools available to civil society organisations.
Originally posted in SustainAbility’s Radar Magazine – Issue 13.