Sometimes when I was at school I would get my homework back with a mark of 5 out of 10. Sometimes that felt justified, because I hadn’t done much work. But on other occasions it was a disappointment: I felt as if my work had not been rewarded, even though I was convinced that I’d understood the subject matter. On those occasions, I went to see my teacher to ask about it. The answer I received was often: “I can see that you understand it, but you haven’t expressed it well enough.” It did no good to try and explain at home that I really had worked for it.
It’s not a fair reflection of our efforts in this area
Andius Teijgeler Director Communications and Sustainability
A 5 for human rights
This week ABN AMRO was given a score of 5 by Banktrack for its human rights policy. To be honest, that’s a bit worse than getting a five at school, because the scale here goes up to 12. And yet again I have the feeling that the score isn’t justified: it’s not a fair reflection of our efforts in this area.
Agreements within the bank: a good start
Of course ABN AMRO endorses the UN Guiding Principles for Human Rights. We have also translated them into a declaration that has been adopted by our highest policymaking body, the Group Risk Committee, which is chaired by a member of the Managing Board. And together with the non-profit organisation Shift, we are working hard to put that policy into practice.
For example, we are critically reviewing our own business operation, starting with our HR policy, in which we aim for more diversity within the bank. Senior Management has set targets for this, and we are making real progress. We also pay close attention during our procurement process to potential human rights infringements. In our cleaning contract, for example, we look closely at the working conditions.
The real challenge is in the chain
But all that is fairly easy to do. Things become more challenging when we talk to clients in the chain, where human rights issues can be relevant. Whether we’re talking about cotton from Uzbekistan or shipbuilding or shipbreaking in the Middle East, we engage in the dialogue. We ask our clients about their human rights policy and how they put it into practice, and we work with them and the authorities concerned. We also ask to see their improvement plans. We monitor them closely, because we want to know if they achieve their targets.
Better to be in it for the long haul than not to have any influence
So as to be well prepared for these conversations, we carry out research and talk to relevant NGOs, experts and other stakeholders. Our starting point is that we always engage in the dialogue first. It’s only in exceptional cases that we decide to end the relationship, for example because of insufficient results and impact. We believe it is better to remain in dialogue for as long as possible, because at least then we can still have an influence. We lose that influence the moment another bank steps in and takes over our loans. We realise that we are nowhere near always able to see the full picture; we are after all dependent on public sources and information that our client gives us. That’s another reason why it’s good to listen to what NGOs have to say.
Sector analyses reveal human rights issues
But the impact of an individual company in a given sector is often limited. If one client succeeds in improving working conditions and the rest of the sector don’t do the same, it is sometimes difficult for that client to remain competitive. To address this, we’ve started developing a method to perform sector analyses in partnership with Shift, an NGO that helps with the implementation of the Guiding Principles. We then look at whether we can engage in the dialogue on a sectoral level. The first sector for which we performed such an analysis was the diamond industry.
First diamonds, now cocoa
The main thing to come out of it was that the famous Kimberly Certification covers only a part of the human rights problems. We are now engaged in dialogue with several parties in the chain, in order to challenge them about their role. Thanks to our relatively major position as a financier in the sector, we are a credible discussion partner. The second chain on which we’ve recently started is the cocoa industry.
Sustainability guide for fashion industry is just the start
The decision to take sectors and chains as a starting point is actually one that applies for sustainability across the board. It started with the publication of a sustainability guide, which we prepared together with Schuttelaer and Partners for the fashion industry. The reaction was so positive that we decided to continue further along this path.
Human rights are part of everyday life
And after all that, a score of just five. It makes you wonder. Just a five. It’s partly justified, because we are not yet shouting out our story loudly enough and it’s not publicised enough. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. We therefore want to make it more visible, because it’s too important a topic not to achieve a better score. As far as we’re concerned, it’s ‘business as usual’. It’s something we have to do!