What Is Corporate Accountability
and How Is It Being Enforced?

With Charity Ryerson of Corporate Accountability Lab

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What did you have for breakfast? Maybe a banana with coffee? It’s hard to say it, but the multinational corporations that produce much of these foods in tropical regions are enacting human rights abuses against their workers. Child labor, pennies for wages, and even violence are some of the costs you won’t see reflected in the pricing of your banana bunch at the grocery store. 

Unknowingly, consumers purchase everyday items that contribute to an industry built on the cheapest possible business practices. And these types of corner-cutting business activities come at the expense of equitable and sustainable environmental performance by the company and impediments to sustainable development where workers live.

In an effort to disrupt current supply chains and bring humanity back into the equation, the Corporate Accountability Lab is using design thinking and international law to prosecute the corporations responsible for developing such brutal working conditions. 

Founder Charity Ryerson spoke with us on the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast about the holes in the system she’s working to fix and how consumers can become impactful activists to battle the corporations responsible for abusive labor practices. 

Spoiler alert: you can take action every single day, starting with breakfast.

What is Corporate Accountability?

Corporate accountability refers to the act of holding companies responsible for the non-financial areas of their impact on people and the planet. This examines the quality of corporate citizenship by companies regarding its internal practices and communities it affects through its work. 

This is commonly confused with corporate social responsibility (CSR). To briefly clarify before we move on, CSR is the belief that businesses have a duty to act responsibly with regard to their surrounding environment. Often this manifests in a voluntary initiative or program within a corporation. The scope of these programs varies broadly and may be self-monitored and even not at all. Corporate accountability, on the other hand, refers to the, most reliably, external pressures for the business to meet certain standards or address the consequences of their actions. Corporate accountability holds businesses, well, accountable, for their actions.

A Brief Overview of Supply Chains 

A supply chain is a system that creates and distributes products or services. The device you’re holding now has a supply chain that consisted of mining, assembly, and shipment. Supply chains like this employ 450 million people around the globe and contribute valuable goods to society. Unfortunately, this often comes at the expense of many people’s lives and an astounding 24.9 million people in modern slavery, working in forced labor situations to bring cheap products to the world. 

Many transnational corporations don’t have procedures in place to ensure they meet the United Nations Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP). Lacking process, operations, and the will to protect humans and the planet in business, they exploit workers and contribute to climate change in large numbers. While these abuses take place in many sectors, the agricultural and textile industries are two of the most egregious offenders.

Human Rights Violations in Agriculture 

Agricultural workers are twice as likely to suffer a fatal accident in the workplace than in other sectors. These workers can also have health-related issues from repeated pesticide exposure and insufficient protective equipment. Especially for women and children, pesticide exposure is a concern for reproductive health and development. Although these are dangerous conditions, workers have little to no hope of detangling themselves from their jobs.

One of the most well-known human rights abuses was committed by Chiquita, the largest banana producer in the world. You may recognize the logo more than the name.

chiquita-banana-logoThe company spent years funding a known terrorist organization in Colombia that murdered civilians in the local community and used the businesses’ infrastructure to ship arms and drugs. Lawsuits against Chiquita were brought in the United States under the Alien Tort Claims Act. While legal action could never fully repair the local communities Chiquita harmed, it’s just one example of how corporate accountability can be facilitated. 

The Textile Industry 

The cost of cotton is much higher than the average t-shirt. In Uzbekistan, people are threatened into becoming cotton harvesters and forced labor among children is common. Even after raw materials are cultivated, human rights abuses continue in factories. Lots of clothing that we import into the United States is made in a “sweatshop”, which is a factory that, by its existence, has violated at least two labor laws.

These facilities pay next to nothing, offer no benefits, provide unhealthy working conditions, and demand long hours. Sweatshops do not lift people out of poverty as many argue, but instead create a system that perpetuates reliance on dangerous and violent labor practices throughout supply chains.

Why is Corporate Accountability Important? 

It’s critically important to our very survival that we challenge corporations who prioritize financial performance at the expense of human beings and our planet. As CAL says, “When companies know they can violate rights without consequences, they are more likely to engage in behavior that puts their workers, local communities, and the environment at risk.”

The effects of these corporations’ business practices are expansive—from the business practices that enslave workers to the toxic pollution that seeps into our groundwater. 

Are We Holding Companies Accountable? 

Laws in the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands show promise in their efforts to prosecute corporations in court for human rights abuses. It can be tricky to find legal grounds to be successful because plaintiffs and prosecutors must utilize these laws based on the company’s home base and business locations, but it can be done, and these countries are doing it.

Apart from the legal approach, the business sector is seeing the rise of socially conscious businesses raising the bar and competing with traditional, destructive companies. While we can’t all file suit in international courts, we can vote with our dollar by opting for businesses that respect humane and sustainable operations throughout their supply chain. By supporting these businesses, we can flip the economy to reduce demand for harmful global supply chains and the companies that embrace them. 

On top of individual action, Charity Ryerson of the Corporate Accountability Lab believes that structural changes are the best way to make lasting systemic change and alter the course of our supply chains forever. This is how her organization is addressing some of the biggest issues of our time. The legal community, watchdog organizations, and civil society as a whole are stepping up to create change and hold transnational corporations accountable for their practices.

Corporate Accountability Lab: An Advocate for the People

The Corporate Accountability Lab (CAL) is not your average law firm. Their mission is to unleash the creative potential of the law to protect people and the planet from corporate abuse. The team at CAL is well-versed in human, labor, and environmental rights. By utilizing design thinking as their primary methodology, CAL is able to take more shots at the common goal of human equality and advocate for those who don’t have the opportunity and resources to advocate for themselves. 

They protect every stakeholder in the supply chain from the enslaved miner, to the exploited manufacturing worker, to the polluted local community.

Charity Ryerson, Executive Director and Founder of Corporate Accountability Lab

Charity-ryerson-CAL-feature-1Charity’s passion for corporate accountability and sharing legal rights with workers is electric. She’s deeply committed to bringing justice to families and victims of the human rights violations led by corporate abusers. 

As a college student, she participated in the student anti-sweatshop movement, which rose to popularity in the early 2000s on university campuses. In 2003, Charity was arrested for civil disobedience in the U.S. Army School of the Americas and charged with six months in federal prison.

During her time there, Charity worked for 12 cents per hour separating scrap metal and driving a forklift. This experience right here in the U.S. provided Charity with some insight into how factories operate in the Global South. 

Charity worked in International Labor Rights for a few years and spent time in Colombia, supporting banana workers and their demands for better conditions. Her time in law school at Georgetown allowed her to start thinking creatively about how companies can change behavior in a sustainable manner.

“Rather than having a company by company punishment, how do we disrupt the system in a more fundamental way? ”

Well, CAL continues to disrupt the system researching, monitoring, and mapping violations around the world, then providing creative solutions to ensure accountability globally.

Charity-ryerson-design-thinking

Learn more about CAL’s unique approach to fighting against corporate social and environmental abuse here.

Stepping Up: What Can We do to Hold Companies Accountable?

  • Buy Local: Charity told us that buying local is the best thing we can do as consumers. Knowing the supply chain of your products and supporting the systems that disclose that information is crucial for change among consumers. Avoid mindless consumerism in online shopping and turn to your local mom and pop shops for your goods!
  • Pay More: This isn’t always feasible, but if you have the choice between two bags of coffee and one is a fair trade coffee brand, opt for that bag. Certifications aren’t perfect, but paying $2 more each time you purchase coffee is $2 more in the pocket in the person who grew it. The same goes for eliminating fast fashion from your purchasing habits. Try Allbirds or Patagonia next time you need some clothing. 
  • Speak Out: Are there companies you know violate human rights? Tweet at them, write them letters, or call them out on Facebook. With social media, there are so many ways to let companies know your opinion. As Charity explained, when you choose between two products and opt for one made by a socially responsible company, write the competitor and tell them why you didn’t buy their product. 
  • Stay Educated: Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are dedicated to bringing information on supply chains and human rights abuses to light. Keep up with Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations for updated information. Keep in mind that there are human rights violations taking place even in the United States, so do your research when supporting a new brand and avoid greenwashing.

Closing: From Consumer to Activist

As consumers, we can support individual and structural changes that hold corporations accountable for their human rights abuses. 

The globalization of the economy doesn’t have to be supported by low wages and forced labor. Companies can, and already are, incorporating human welfare and sustainability into their decision-making and it’s turned out to be to their benefit— consumer trends already show a substantial preference for sustainable business practices. 

The evolution of capitalism could be rooted in ethical decision-making that addresses the triple bottom line if we take collective action and support others who support us. Relying on corporate voluntarism to correct destructive practices, we as human beings and consumers can accelerate much-needed change.

It’s easy to disassociate our goods with where they’ve come from. Today, be a conscious consumer and try thinking twice when you’re making a meal or ordering something online. Ask why goods are so cheap, and you’ll likely find yourself gravitating towards more ethical alternatives. 

Our collective action can have a huge impact in changing what “business ethics” means. When we reduce demand and support workers all around the globe, we are saving lives and the planet—not too shabby for a day’s breakfast.

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