The protection of human rights while doing business is the new sustainability, according to the head of Mallesons Stephen Jaques' human rights group.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly following last night's seminar, The Right Path for Business, partner Rob Cooper said that clients are becoming increasingly interested in the notion of human rights-friendly business practices.
The seminar was run for clients in response to last week's endorsement by the United Nations Human Rights Council of Professor John Ruggie's Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
The principles, which have been in the pipeline for more than six years, are based on the fundamental notion that states must protect against human rights abuse within their territory and/or jurisdiction by third parties, including business enterprises, and that this requires taking steps to prevent, investigate, punish and redress abuse of human rights through policies, legislation, regulations and adjudication.
According to Cooper, the UN's endorsement of the principles has encouraged stakeholders to examine the effect of human rights on businesses within Australia and overseas.
He also says that while it is likely to take some time for the principles to be widely adopted, the notion of human rights and business being closely aligned is akin to how environmental issues were viewed a decade ago.
"Ten years ago, hardly anyone [spoke about sustainability]," he said. "Now, if you're not talking about sustainability with your own employees, as well as to your customers and suppliers, it is a bit odd. Sustainability is almost main stream now."
The speakers at last night's seminar were Professor David Kinley, chair in human rights law at the University of Sydney, Elaine Prior, director and senior analyst at Citi Investment Research and Analysis, and Mitchell Landrigan, legal counsel at Telstra.
A key outcome of the seminar was that businesses now have the opportunity to differentiate themselves, in terms of human rights, the way they do in terms of environmental issues.
"Maybe it is going to take 15 years for this matter to really become a central issue for boards to consider, but really, some corporates are now acting on this. It's an opportunity to differentiate yourself from your competitors," said Cooper.
"The retailers and manufacturers, people like Nike and GAP, are very active in this area already, and they use this to positively differentiate themselves. They look at where they source materials and make sure that there are proper health and safety processes going on, and that they are not involving child labour.
"There is an opportunity to differentiate by picking up the principles and running with them, and then broadcasting that to the customers, saying, 'Look at us. We don't operate in the same way as some of the other people you might be buying things from.'"
Cooper also said the speakers encouraged businesses to be proactive in adopting the principles, in what he called a "defensive opportunity".
"There was quite a lot of talk about brand damage and what can happen when things go wrong," he said. "When something does go wrong, it has a habit of ending up on the front page, and the sort of brand damage you then get is very difficult to deal with.
"This is not going to involve a large cost for an entity. Think about these things now. Put it on the agenda and talk about them internally. This can actually lead to an avoidance of brand damage, and then it fits into general risk mitigation, which all companies are looking at anyway."
While Professor Kinley spoke of the need for the Government to lead on this initiative, along with business leaders, he also said that professional services firms need to step up to the challenge.
"Professor Kinley raised a very good point, and that is that it is a multiple-pronged approach here," said Cooper. "Government needs to lead, and the business community is taking the lead already. Basically, they then need to bring the rest along. He also said professional services advisors need to move forward as well, saying that accountants are doing a good job, but that law firms need to do a bit of catching up."