Written by: Pratik Desai, Samantha Ndiwalana, Dan Neale, Shamistha Selvaratnam

Part 1: Know Thyself

The brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police offer in May 2020 has set off weeks of fervent protests in the United States and other countries, reinvigorating the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) by drawing attention to the need to address systemic racism in all its forms and loudly demanding change. It has prompted a broad range of responses from governments, companies and individuals, with varying degrees of introspection, commitment, direct action, protest and virtue-signalling.

Within the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA), our virtual office has been the starting point for a lot of reflection, learning and, indeed, some struggling with the concept of what BLM should mean to us – as individuals, as an organisation, as a component of our benchmark methodologies, and as an entity working to build a movement to support the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (the SDGs). Each of these aspects will be explored in a series of blogs, but this first conversation will focus on the role of BLM and WBA in the 2030 Agenda.

Linking the SDGs and BLM – Inequality is a global issue

The WBA’s mission is captured as ‘Benchmarking for a better world: Building a movement to measure and incentivise business impact towards a sustainable future that works for everyone’. In practice, this means we’re a group of 70+ individuals spread across the world, supported by a diverse coalition of more than 150 organisations. Together, we are committed to incentivising business to play its part in driving the transformations needed to address the systemic challenges we collectively face. We do this by measuring and tracking company progress – or failure – against transformation pathways and then working with Allies to create change by directly engaging with companies, mobilising investor and consumer action and supporting public policy interventions that can drive business action and accountability. As such, the SDGs – and the ways in which businesses contribute to their achievement – provide the background to our daily working life.

The SDGs focus on leaving no one behind. They provide a framework to address global challenges – including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation and peace and justice – and to do so in a way that ensures a more sustainable future for individuals in all countries, regardless of GDP. This focus on universality strongly aligns with our own institutional values, one of which focuses on being inclusive, and our aim to contribute to impact in the communities most affected by the actions of businesses, whether in their operations or supply chains. When BLM gained such traction during a global pandemic in May, it reinforced the need for us, most of whom are based in the global north, to really see the challenges all people face, even in ‘our own back yard’.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) face systemic racism and barriers to equity which can also be ‘grandfathered in’ to the very institutions designed to protect them and guarantee equality. Removing those barriers and eliminating discrimination will require significant transformative action. The SDGs call for us to ‘eradicate poverty in all its forms and dimensions’ and ‘realise the human rights of all’ – directly paralleling the calls of BIPOC to achieve racial justice and equality.

Business and BLM – What should our role be as we push companies to achieve the SDGs?

In the United States, much of the conversation has focused on dealing with race through criminal justice and policing reforms, but companies have also faced increasing attention and scrutiny for their role in entrenching systemic inequalities and stalling on efforts to institute large scale reforms. This focus on the role of business in perpetuating the problem has extended beyond the United States, with businesses around the globe being asked to “pull up or shut up.” At WBA, this has forced us to ask ourselves serious questions. If companies are part of the problem, what then are we doing to hold them accountable? If we are silent, are we complicit? How do we check our own institutional privilege and avoid virtue-signalling, while trying to focus on concrete action?

As we’ve wrestled with these questions, we’ve also begun consulting on our approach to ‘the Social Transformation’ – including what it means for companies to integrate social inclusion as a core part of what they do, and how we can measure this through benchmarks. Given the current circumstances, it is clear that racial inequality should be on the agenda for the social transformation work, but what is less clear is how we should address it along with other systemic issues of inequality such as gender, income and ‘north-south inequality’, which also potentially impact billions of people.

Fools rush in – Recognising we need time to work this out and consult our Allies

Without a quick answer to these questions, our initial approach has been one of reflection and introspection: no knee jerk reactions, social-media blackouts or announcements of a new benchmark, but rather a firm commitment to explore the role of business in addressing racial inequality and its impact on the SDGs. Part of this means also considering what racial inequality and BLM might mean to other aspects of our work, including our external engagement, theory of change and more technical aspects such as the role of intersectionality in SDG benchmarks, which we plan to explore in later blogs in this series.

As part of this period of learning, we’ve also consulted some of our Allies who represent more than 150 multi-stakeholder organisations that span a range of sectors and geographic regions and are committed to holding companies accountable for their sustainability-related performance, including on race. WBA Allies have already been leading on this work – from the pathbreaking work of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice that is engaging with companies to champion fairness and equality, to the vitally important work of CIVICUS in tracking country-level responses to promoting and respecting civic space and freedom, to the urgent efforts of the Institute for Human Rights and Business in continuing to call for increased business action on fundamental human rights issues. These examples have provided powerful inspiration for WBA as we continue to think this through, but they have also highlighted that it’s okay to not have all the answers, or to even be the right group to ‘take action’ every time, as long as we have the right friends and are willing to work collaboratively towards co-creating solutions that address the key drivers and enablers of the issue.

Inequality in our benchmarks – How can we reflect the need for change?

As a result, where we are taking action is in the development of our approach to the social transformation. We currently have two parallel consultation questions to answer.

First – every company in our benchmarks will be assessed on a common set of social indicators (the draft methodology setting out the core social indicators is accessible here). While we currently focus on non-discrimination, we want to know if this now goes far enough or if different types of discrimination need more focus.

Second – we have an opportunity to develop additional benchmarks in addition to those on gender equality and women’s empowerment and corporate human rights performance. Income equality, gender equality and living wage were already high on our agenda and our thinking is more advanced in those areas than on racial equality, but here is where we need your help.

Where do you think we should focus as we continue working to mobilise 2,000 companies in support of the 2030 Agenda? We’d like to hear from you.

If you are interested in participating in our workshops on the social transformation in July and August, or would like to input into WBA’s thinking on a potential ‘inequality ’, please contact us at info.social@worldbenchmarkingalliance.org.

If you have any thoughts or ideas on additional topics we might explore further, please also let us know. We look forward to providing more perspectives from inside the WBA through subsequent blogs, expanding our thinking on what diversity and inequality means for SDG benchmarks, the social transformation and our collective efforts to leave no one behind.

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