John Ruggie, human rights icon, dies at 76

Some SGI members may not recognize his name, but much of our work in human rights over the last 20 years has been built upon John Ruggie’s vision, imagination, determination, and political skill.

John G. Ruggie, a Harvard professor who developed the U.N. Global Compact and its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), died on Thursday, September 16, at age 76.

SGI joins with so many who mourn the passing of this icon in human rights. May we, who believe in the work that he advanced, continue the efforts that he initiated.

Ruggie was a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. From 1997-2001, he served as United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Planning, a post created specifically for him by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan. His areas of responsibility included assisting the Secretary-General in establishing and overseeing the UN Global Compact, now the world’s largest corporate citizenship initiative; proposing and gaining General Assembly approval for the Millennium Development Goals; and broadly contributing to the effort at institutional reform and renewal for which Annan and the United Nations as a whole were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. In 2005, Annan appointed Ruggie as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, tasked with proposing measures to strengthen the human rights performance of the global business sector. In June 2011 the UN Human Rights Council, in an unprecedented step, unanimously endorsed the UNGPs that Professor Ruggie developed through extensive consultations, pilot projects and research. The UNGPs, dubbed the “Ruggie Principles,” celebrated their 10th anniversary this year.

I’d recommend reading these tributes to his work:

What’s a “Good Buy?”

According to the latest statistics released by the American Apparel & Footwear Association: In 2020, on average, every man, woman, and child in the United States spent $1,067.93 to buy 51.8 pieces of clothes and 5.8 pairs of shoes. Normally, those numbers are higher, but the COVID-19 pandemic reduced them.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reminds us: “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act” (#206).

We have five times more clothing today than 40 years ago. We prize bigger, walk-in closets to accommodate our clothes. Clothing purchased this year will have seven uses on average before being discarded by the purchaser.

That’s a lot of clothing with a hefty impact on carbon emissions and the climate crisis. That’s a lot of stuff sitting in people’s closets. That’s a lot of that ends up in landfills.

Our overflowing landfills aren’t the only obvious signs of a “throwaway culture.” The purchase of discardable clothing lends itself to thinking of the workers as disposable as well.

The old notion of a “good buy” is that it is cheap and makes you look thin. A renewed notion: a “good buy” has ethical content. How was it sourced? How does it care for creation? How were the workers treated in the making of this garment? Were they paid a living wage?


In April 2021, 200 ICCR members and affiliates signed the ICCR Investor Statement Calling for Renewal of Bangladesh Accord, a month before the agreement was set to expire. A brief extension of the Accord secured protections for worker rights and remedy solutions for 2 million workers at 600 factories through August 31st. We are delighted that the Accord has been renewed and expanded for two years as the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry. This new Accord takes effect on September 1, one day after the current Bangladesh Accord is set to expire. Like its predecessor agreement, the new International Accord is a legally binding agreement between companies and trade unions that aims to make ready-made garments (RMG) and textile factories safe. True to its new title, the new Accord aims to expand these safety standards and worker to other countries and labor markets using the Bangladesh Accord model.

A list of signatories to the International Accord is available here. While it includes American labels like Fanatics and PVH (owner of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Warner’s, Olga and True & Co., and licenses brands such as Kenneth Cole New York and Michael Kors), we are disappointed that U.S. companies like Costco, the Gap, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Target, TJX (owner of TJ Maxx and Marshalls), and Walmart are not yet signatories. This roster of American non-signatories aligns with those who refused to join the Accord in 2013, opting to create the now defunct Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety instead. Given that a fire swept through a garment factory, killing 17 people in Pakistan on Friday (8/27), worker safety remains an urgent concern and requires multilateral action. To sit on the sidelines is irresponsible.

Connecting the first section of this post with the second, I’d suggest that, while we, as consumers, can “buy better,” the Accord, a legally binding, multi-stakeholder agreement, advances commitments to worker safety in ways that corporate “codes of conduct” and audits cannot. If a company hasn’t signed it, the onus is on them to demonstrate that they are doing something better.

Please see the New York Times and Reuters articles for more background on the new Accord.

Use Finance to Reduce Gender-based Violence

Today is Women’s Equality Day, a day that commemorates the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Earlier this week, I circulated a request to SGI members asking them to sign an investor letter to a company that requires employees to submit to forced arbitration in matters of workplace discrimination, harassment, and other worker complaints. As these employment agreements disproportionately have adverse effects for women and People of Color, we are asking the company if the use of forced arbitration is consistent with their commitment towards gender and racial equity.

In some respects, supporting an investor letter of that nature is consistent with our mission and automatic for SGI, so I appreciated a recent invitation to be a part of the Criterion Institute’s design sessions for a Roadmap for Christian Denominations to Use Finance to Reduce Gender-based Violence. This allowed for some greater reflection on why we take these actions and what we hope to achieve.

While I recommend that you read the Roadmap for yourself, I’d like to make three observations.

First, the document begins with “Sparking the financial imagination,” a fruitful origin that I experienced in the design sessions, embedded in an exercise with our hands that we performed as we began. A theologian from Duke Divinity School, Craig Dykstra, coined the term “pastoral imagination.” As he put it, in any profession (law, architecture, music, etc.), those particularly apt in its practice see things that most of us will miss. Dykstra also writes of ecclesial imagination: “the way of seeing and being that emerges when a community of faith, together as a community, comes increasingly to share the knowledge of God and to live a way of abundant life–not only in church but also in the many contexts in which they live their daily lives.” This roadmap aims to spark that imagination “in the many contexts in which [we] live [our] daily lives.”

Second, the roadmap address “prophetic hope.” A Biblical prophet is not one who sees the future so much as one who sees clearly what is happening here and now. A lesson in community organizing is about seeing with two eyes: one eye sees “the world as it is,” and the other sees “the world as it should be, as God made it to be.” A prophetic hope, then, is a stubborn conviction that we can live into that second world, in spite of the immediate evidence to the contrary. It took many years for women to obtain the right to vote, and obtaining the goal of eliminating gender-based violence appears to be on a distant horizon. We, as faith-based investors are called to practice this prophetic hope.

Third, I am a Catholic; so please, then, let me leverage a little Catholic guilt in a final observation about “bystanders.” Many conversations about violence typically frame the discussion in terms of “victim” and “perpetrator.” While that conversation is important, it only addresses part of the problem. A comprehensive response to gender-based violence must also address the role of collective passivity in the face of anything that dehumanizes. Given the pervasiveness of inaction, whether in the form of denial, willful ignorance, or silent complicity, we who are bystanders must be held accountable, especially those of us who occupy social positions of privilege. We can’t afford to stay on the sidelines.

I am reminded of when I heard a member of an African-American church who helped drive a bus to integrate some schools in the Boston area. Like the kids, he faced insults and potential violence regularly. When he was asked: why did you do it? He replied, “Well, I think you’re either working to make the world a better place, or you’re working to keep it the same. So I had to drive the bus.”

I hope that all of us feel similarly compelled to act, engaging all of the imagination and hope that we can muster!

Webinar: Water Stewardship

When describing the geography of SGI, one can use bodies of water as a descriptor: The Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. We have a new member from the other side of Lake Michigan, the Grand Rapids Dominicans as well as another new member near the Lake’s southern shore, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ. We are based on the western shore of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, and a returning member here is more commonly known as the Lake Franciscans and our board president is from Riverwater Partners. Most other members can be characterized by their proximity to the Mississippi: The Franciscans Sisters of Little Falls near the Mississippi’s origin, our members from the Twin Cities, the FSPA’s in La Crosse, the Dubuque Franciscans and the BVMs, our St. Louis members, down to the Jesuits in New Orleans.

One might say that water is in our DNA as an organization.

On August 19th, we continued efforts to educate ourselves on issues related to water. In a webinar on Water Stewardship, we learned about some tools that we can use and actions we can take in these efforts. We are grateful that Robin Miller of Ceres and Lydia Miller Dana Investment Advisors joined us to enrich our conversation.

“The ultimate stranded asset related to water is people.”

Climate change, loss of biodiversity, and access to water have become existential threats, and, while politicians have been forced to collaborate on a global scale, the financial sector and businesses must also contribute if we are to have a chance of success. Until recently, there was not enough publicly available information for investors to assess the real-world impacts of their investments on water availability, making it difficult to accurately assess water-related risks. New tools present opportunities for investors to become involved through active ownership and investing in companies that provide water solutions. 

Water stewardship, in corporate life, means understanding the risks faced from water scarcity and pollution, and taking action to help ensure sustainable water management. In its plainest sense, water is a shared, public resource.

Again, we are very grateful for the presence of Robin and Lydia in this webinar, for their commitment to this work, and their generosity in sharing their wisdom and experience with us. As always, we welcome your feedback via a confidential evaluation found here. Slides are available here.

Water Stewardship Resources:

July 30: World Day Against Trafficking in Persons

Victims’ Voices Lead the Way

Today is the United Nations’ World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. This year’s theme puts victims of human trafficking at the center of the campaign and highlights the importance of listening to and learning from survivors of human trafficking.

Many victims of human trafficking have experienced ignorance or misunderstanding in their attempts to get help. They have had traumatic post-rescue experiences during identification interviews and legal proceedings. Some have faced revictimization and punishment for crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers. Others have been subjected to stigmatization or received inadequate support.

Learning from victims’ experiences and turning their suggestions into concrete actions will lead to a more victim-centred and effective approach in combating human trafficking.

SGI members have been longtime leaders in efforts to fight human trafficking, and we consider it to be one of the most important issues we raise with companies. We believe that companies that genuinely want to root out trafficking from their supply chains must incorporate worker voice into their human rights due diligence process. That means listening to those who have been harmed. In the work to end human trafficking, it is vital to listen to the stories and experiences of survivors and to allow those to shape our shape our path forward.

“Human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic”

Today, the U.S. State Department issued its 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report. The annual report is a critical tool to monitor and assess efforts to eliminate human trafficking. As investors, we expect companies, in the course of their human rights due diligence, to act based on the report’s identification of salient risks to people in their operations and supply chain.

“We document 11 countries where the government itself is the trafficker. For example, through forced labor on public works projects or in sectors of the economy that the government feels are particularly important,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a news conference. Those countries include: Afghanistan, Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, North Korea, Iran, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, and Turkmenistan.

If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic.”

acting Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Kari Johnstone

I’d highlight a few things from this year’s report:

  • For the first time, the report draws a link with systemic racism in the United States and abroad, connecting discriminatory policies to the perpetuation of human trafficking. “If we’re serious about ending trafficking in persons, we must also work to combat systemic racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination,” Blinken said.
  • The report underscores the pandemic’s effect on trafficking. Women and children were severely affected by the pandemic, according to the report, along with those facing food and economic insecurity.
  • The chapter concerning the United States recognizes a shortcoming here at home: “There was a continued lack of progress and sustained effort to comprehensively address labor trafficking in the United States.”

The report categorizes countries of the world with regard to their adherence to the standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. Each country is tiered according to compliance:

  • Tier 1 (those governments who fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards)
  • Tier 2 (while not fully complying, governments with significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards)
  • Tier 2 watch list (not fully complying along with a significant absolute number of trafficking victims, or a failure to increase efforts, or a determination that the country is in fact committed to making significant progress in the coming year)
  • Tier 3 (those governments who do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so)
  • Special cases (countries where a civil or humanitarian crisis makes gaining information difficult).

Remember that tier 1, which includes the United States, is simply compliance with the minimum standards. A tier 3 designation means that the U.S. can restrict assistance or withdraw support for the country at global funding organizations like the International Monetary Fund. This year, the State Department downgraded Malaysia and Guinea-Bissau to Tier 3.

The report intends to offer “homework” to governments based on their tier. The image above lists the countries of the tier 2 watch list, tier 3, and special case categories. The report includes a country by country analysis of human trafficking.

To read about a previous year’s TIP Report, please see the 2020 edition here and the 2019 here.

Follow the Money

Multiple crises over the past year reminded us that our global economy and our democracies are unjust and fragile. With decades of lobbying and political spending, companies have contributed to the breakdown of trust in the system by distorting elections, policymaking, law enforcement, and citizens’ ability to hold power to account.

Why do industries like meatpacking enjoy little oversight under both Democrat and Republican administrations? A recent report from the nonprofit advocacy group Feed the Truth suggests a disquieting answer. The report documents how the largest companies in the U.S. food system invest a significant sum in lobbying and campaign donations, all but guaranteeing a friendlier regulatory environment.

Corporate political spending and lobbying are possibly the major factors obstructing progress on critical policy issues including the climate crisis, corporate tax loopholes, fossil fuel subsidies, pharmaceutical pricing, minimum wage, worker rights, and youth tobacco use. Companies impede legislators and regulators from acting on evidence and for the common good. The 2010 Citizens United court ruling only exasperated corporate political influence.

Investors try to address this. For example, SGI members led or co-filed 10 political spending or lobbying resolutions.

When It comes to political spending on elections, we rely on guidance from the Center for Political Accountability (CPA). CPA, collaborating with the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research and Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, developed a model code of conduct. They apply that code and produce an annual report on political spending disclosure.

Capturing information on corporate lobbying is more difficult. Generally, it comes in three streams:

  1. Corporations directly employ lobbyists for matters of concern on the federal, state, and local level. The laws regarding disclosure vary in each jurisdiction making it difficult to track. For example, e-cigarette maker Juul admitted to Congress that it lobbies in 48 states, but try to gather all that data on your own.
  2. Corporations also make payments to trade associations that lobby on their behalf without specific disclosure or accountability. The US Chamber of Commerce has spent more than $1.6 billion since 1998.
  3. Corporations make payments to 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofits and 527 political organizations, often referred to as “dark money,” that can create legal and reputational risk for companies. Ohio utility FirstEnergy is under investigation for funneling $60 million through a dark money 501(c)(4) group called Generation Now that was used for bribery. In another example, the Rule of Law Defense Fund is a social welfare group that helped organize the protest before the January 6th riots and is an arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).

While corporate and traditional PAC direct donations to politicians have strict limits, company payments to trade associations and 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofits for lobbying have no restrictions. This means companies can give unlimited amounts to third-party groups that spend millions on lobbying and undisclosed grassroots activity. Thus, shareholder proposals for lobbying disclosure capture indirect spending through trade associations or social welfare groups.

The CPA-Zicklin Index found that, among companies listed in S&P 500, only 18% fully disclose their contributions to 501(c)(4) advocacy groups, only 24% fully disclose their contributions to trade associations, and only 30% fully disclose their donations to 527 political organizations. So there is a long way to go.

In the wake of January’s attack on the U.S. Capitol and the pause imposed by some companies on their political donations, prospects for a change in the status quo may be improving. In February, ICCR asked companies to consider ending political spending on elections. This proxy season, shareholders sent a clear message for more disclosure and alignment of corporate political spending and lobbying.

This post is in a series that exams the outcome of the 2021 proxy season. For a complete list of SGI resolutions from 2021, please visit this page.

COVID-19 Pandemic Challenges Traditional Pharma Model

From the beginning one thing was clear: the COVID-19 pandemic will end only when everyone, everywhere has access to vaccines and life-saving treatment. Even as we struggle here in the U.S. to vaccinate people of color and those who are reluctant, billions of people elsewhere have been suffering through a pandemic with no access to vaccines, even as there are significant surpluses here and elsewhere in the world.

To be fair, the pharmaceutical industry deserves praise for producing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines so quickly. Developing a vaccine takes an average of 10 years — if it works at all. Despite decades of well-funded research, there are still no vaccines for HIV or malaria. We now have multiple, highly effective COVID vaccines, all developed in less than a year.

These vaccines are the product of innovative research dating back several decades, spurred by unprecedented public investment. Operation Warp Speed has provided more than $10 Billion in support of vaccine makers for the development and expansion of manufacturing capacity. Another $825 million has been given in support of monoclonal antibody therapies. As of March, U.S. commitment to the CT-Accelerator stood at $6 billion. In April, President Biden pledged another $2 billion to the international COVAX effort.

Amid such vast public investment, pharma companies pursued monopolistic deals with the fruits of taxpayer-funded innovation, rather than volunteering to share their know-how for the next great task facing humanity: getting those vaccines to everyone, everywhere, at the lowest cost possible, as quickly as possible. This traditional business model based on public funding followed by IP protected monopolistic practices is finally facing financial, legal, and reputational risks.

Alongside other ICCR members, SGI members participated in a campaign to challenge companies to disclose how public investment into COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics figured into global pricing & access strategies. This is important, because drugs don’t work if people can’t afford them. The increasing trends of the rise of coronavirus variants combined with our collective failure to mask up and maintain social distance suggests that Covid-19 will become an endemic condition, much like the flu. Billions of us likely will need the vaccine each year.

This is not an issue that only rests with governments. Corporations have an important role to play in ensuring equitable access to affordable, quality care. Recent shareholder resolutions asked pharma companies to account for their role in our collective fight against the Coronavirus. Many other shareholders agreed yielding votes in excess of 30%. As a recent article in Responsible Investor asked: “[S]hould middle/low income countries have to rely on the paternalism of well-meaning NGOs and donors when the pharmaceutical industry has it within its power to play a pivotal role in ending this global scourge?”

Supreme Court rules on Nestlé USA, Cargill child labor case

Today, in an 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court issued a decision in favor of two corporations accused of links to child slavery in the Ivory Coast. The case, Nestlé v. Doe, was a lawsuit brought by six Mali citizens against the companies Nestlé USA and Cargill. The lawsuit claimed that the chocolate makers aided and abetted child slavery on African cocoa farms, reversing a ruling that allowed the claims to proceed under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said the companies’ activities in the United States were not sufficiently related to the alleged abuses to be subject to suit under the ATS. The decision, the latest in a series of rulings, sets increasingly strict limitations on federal lawsuits based on foreign human rights abuses. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the lone dissent.

I wrote about the December 2020 oral arguments here. The decision feels like a setback, especially as we observed World Day Against Child Labor just last week (June 12th), and, yesterday, the U.S. State Department heralded the 10th anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs):

These principles recognize a three-pronged approach to protecting human rights in the context of business activity: States have the duty to protect human rights; businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights; and victims affected by business-related human rights issues should have access to remedy. We commemorate the achievements made over the last decade in these areas, and take heed of the substantive work that still needs to be done toward realization of these principles.

Antony JBlinken, Secretary of State, Press Statement

While the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Nestlé USA and Cargill, hope is not lost. The majority of justices rejected a notion of corporate immunity under the statute. The ruling continues to hold that corporations can be sued under international law for actions within their supply chain. The case will be remanded to a lower court where the six trafficked children will seek to amend their case in such a way as to satisfy today’s ruling. I join in the hopes that they have their day in court and that justice is done.

Taking “heed of the substantive work that still needs to be done,” SGI urges Nestlé and Cargill to take action to action to eliminate the grave crime of child slavery from their supply chain, and we will continue to call upon all companies with whom we engage to see and act on their responsibility for protecting and respecting human rights and providing remediation for those instances were human rights have been violated.

Webinar: Proxy Voting

On April 16th, SGI’s quarterly member webinar examined how the engagement season will be shaped by the pandemic and racial justice issues. We are grateful that Michael Passoff of Proxy Impact and Meredith Miller of the UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust joined us to enrich our conversation. We had some great interaction in the question and answer period, and, if a member missed it, please, email a staff member for a link to the recording.

Every year, billions of shares are voted at more than 3,000 shareholder meetings of public companies. “Proxy plumbing” is an informal name for the system by which proxy materials land in shareholders’ mailboxes each year. The name is apt. Today’s proxy plumbing is confusing, inefficient and expensive, much like some interconnected jumble of water pipes, joints and faucets. Michael and Meredith helped give us a clearer understanding of how shareholders can better navigate the maze.

Again, we are very grateful for the presence of Michael and Meredith in this webinar, for their commitment to this work, and their generosity in sharing their wisdom and experience with us. As always, we welcome your feedback via a confidential evaluation found here. Slides are available here.