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International frameworks: guides for global business

How can responsibility and sustainability be made integral parts of the global economy? The answer to this question is provided by international guidelines, which serve as the foundation of the global debate on corporate social responsibility (CSR).

International frameworks

All aspects of doing business - procurement, production and sales - are part of globally integrated structures, often putting them outside the influence of exclusively national legislation. But how can we make sure that in such a world the profit of one person does not result from harming somebody else? To this end, international organisations have developed guidelines that offer globally active companies guidance and are designed to ensure that social and environmental responsibility are part of the equation.

UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Human rights are at the heart of the debate, and so is the question of which tools can be deployed to make sure that they are respected. In 2011, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations adopted concrete guidelines for action, the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, intended to move beyond the debate on voluntary versus binding instruments in the area of human rights. The Guiding Principles rest on three pillars:

1. the state duty to protect
2. the corporate responsibility to respect
3. access to remedy

The first pillar describes the obligation of states to actively contribute to preventing human rights violations by companies, while the second pillar deals directly with the responsibilities of companies. This responsibility comprises not only a company's own activities, but also all relevant business relationships, e.g. the supply chain. The third pillar sets out how access to remedy and complaint mechanisms can be ensured in cases of human rights violations.

The Federal Government is currently drawing up a National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights, which is to be based on the Guiding Principles.

Corporate social responsibility in line with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises

As for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, they offer a comprehensive code of conduct designed to provide multinational enterprises (MNEs) with guidance and support in their interactions with trade unions and in the areas of environmental protection, the fight against corruption and respect of the interests of consumers. The Guidelines also contain recommendations on overseas investment and cooperation with foreign suppliers. They were lastupdated in 2011, adding to the sections on human rights and due diligence obligations (responsibility for the actions of suppliers and business partners).
The Guidelines were developed by the OECD member states in cooperation with companies, trade unions and civil society as recommendations for companies. Their application is voluntary. However, the States Parties are obliged to promote the Guidelines, which are the only mulilaterally agreed and comprehensive code of conduct for corporate social responsibility. This is the job of the National Contact Points (NCPs). The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, and more precisely its division VC3, acts as Germany's NCP. Click here for more information on its tasks.

The ILO's social standards

The International Labour Organization (ILO), which was founded in 1919, aims to introduce minimum social standards around the world. The idea behind these efforts is to prevent companies from gaining competitive advantages by violating workers' rights.

The mission and the actions of the ILO are based on four basic principles:

• Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining
• Elimination of forced labour
• Abolition of child labour
• Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation

To date, eight conventions spell out these basic principles in more detail. Collectively, they are known as the core labour standards. In 1998, all member states adopted the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. It stresses that "social justice is essential to universal and lasting peace". To date, 138 ILO members states, among them Germany, have ratified all the core labour standards.

The tripartite declaration of principles concerning multinational enterprises and social policy constitutes the basis for the actions of the ILO's member states. It deals with all ILO guidelines "enhancing the positive social and labour effects of the operations of MNEs”. The principles aim to serve as guidelines for multinational enterprises (MNEs) as well as for companies, governments, employers' and workers' organisations. All in all, the declaration contains 59 rules for the following areas:The tripartite declaration of principles concerning multinational enterprises and social policy constitutes the basis for the actions of the ILO's member states. It deals with all ILO guidelines "enhancing the positive social and labour effects of the operations of MNEs”. The principles aim to serve as guidelines for multinational enterprises (MNEs) as well as for companies, governments, employers' and workers' organisations. All in all, the declaration contains 59 rules for the following areas:

• Employment
• Training
• Conditions of work and life
• Industrial relations

The UN Global Compact

The UN Global Compact is an international network of companies, which have committed to aligning their operations with ten globally applicable principles on human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption. For companies this includes taking on responsibility for respecting human rights - also along supply chains -, implementing labour standards in developing and emerging markets, pursuing measurable environmental goals and actively fighting corruption.

The ten Global Compact principles are derived from four key international agreements: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ILO's Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, the principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the UN Convention against Corruption.

Not only markets and society on the whole benefit from compliance with the principles. The same also goes for the members of the UN Global Compact. With their commitments, they are contributing directly to a stable environment for their business activities. More than 10,000 companies and organisations from the civil society, policy-making and academic communities in 170 countries have already joined the initiative to make the vision of corporate social responsibility a reality. Members exchange experiences in local networks and develop concrete solutions for a contribution of business to sustainable development in the form of concepts, guidelines and instruments.

Reporting standards

There is no shortage of guidelines and guidance for companies wanting to find out more about the challenges in the area of corporate social responsibility and about what policy-makers and the public expect of them. They include specialised material on reporting or guidelines for individual economic sectors. Especially guidelines with a comprehensive approach to CSR, such as ISO 26000 or the German Sustainability Code, refer to the key, internationally-recognised standards listed in this article, when it comes to delivering on the crucial areas of action.