This blog will cover some news items related to Sustainability: Corporate Social Responsibility, Stewardship, Environmental management, etc.


Mapping out the way ahead for business and human rights

Mapping out the way ahead for business and human rights

Article by Mallen Baker

John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations, has produced his interim report.

Appointed in July 2005, Ruggie was tasked with reviewing the state of play following the failure of the proposed UN "Norms on the responsibilities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to human rights". His interim report gives an overview of his work to date, and with his focus for future strategic directions.

In pursuit of the latter, Ruggie gives his own reflections on the failure of the Norms. The Norms, drafted in treaty-like language, set out human rights principles for companies. The text contained a summary of rights that may be affected by business, positively and negatively, as well as the collation of source documents from relevant human rights instruments. Ruggie says that had the Norms confined itself to this content, coupled perhaps with a set of benchmarks of what practices business should avoid, the story of the Norms may have been very different.

As it was, he says, the Norms exercise "became engulfed by its own doctrinal excesses". It made exaggerated legal claims and created confusion. In particular, the Norms were promoted as being non-voluntary in nature whilst also representing no more than a reflection and restatement of existing international legal principles. And yet, with the exception of certain war crimes and crimes against humanity, there are no generally accepted international legal principles that do this. The legal authority claimed for the Norms was therefore utterly spurious.

In addition, the Norms were unspecific about what human rights obligations companies, rather than States, actually have. In certain instances, the Norms end up imposing higher obligations on corporations than on States. Not only could this not be justified, but it could also undermine the primary role of the State as being the legitimate agent for the protection of human rights.

Ruggie notes that it is all too easy for the debate that reached stalemate over the Norms - with the business sector opposed and the NGOs in favour - to be repeated. There is hard work to be done in defining better the appropriate instruments for progress going forward that will enable the parties to reach agreement over the substantive issues.

There is a real need for social norms of some kind - particularly where corporations are operating in countries where the capacity or willingness to enforce legal standards is lacking. To move this forward, Ruggie has asked the International Organisation of Employers to carry out work identifying effective ways for companies to deal with dilemma situations encountered in 'weak governance zones'.

One of the most difficult areas is just what constitutes corporate complicity in human rights abuses - a question which is part of the 2-year mandate that Ruggie has been given. Ruggie believes that the most explicit definition of complicity so far was that provided by the US Court of Appeals in the Unocal case that was brought under the Alien Torts Claims Act. The ruling stipulated three criteria: giving practical assistance to the actual perpetrator of a crime; the requirement that this assistance had a substantial effect on the commission of the criminal act; and the fact that the company knew or should have known that its acts would result in a possible crime even if it did not intend for that crime to take place.

Ruggie says he will continue to follow the work of the expert panel convened by the International Commission of Jurists, and to work with legal teams in different countries to examine case law there.

What he does believe is lacking at the moment across this agenda are any impact assessment tools to help companies identify their human rights impact at a national and project level. Although Ruggie believes that the development of such tools requires resources beyond the scope of his mandate and resources, he does highlight two ongoing projects of interest.

The first is the human rights compliance assessment tool developed by the Danish Institute for Human Rights. It focuses on a company's compliance with human rights instruments, using indicators derived from more that 80 instruments and conventions.

The second is a project by the International Finance Corporation to develop an actual impact assessment guide. The guide will aim to review the entire spectrum of human rights, focusing on areas where the responsibilities of companies are clearest, and providing both country and project level guidance.

Overall, Ruggie's report is pragmatic and committed to progress. NGOs for whom the Norms became an article of faith will be disappointed by the full stop this report effectively places behind this initiative. But they should be heartened by the practical commitment to finding ways forward that will actually work on the ground and improve the human rights performance of companies and states.

New Texas Instruments Plant Touted as a Model in Energy Efficiency

New Texas Instruments Plant Touted as a Model in Energy Efficiency

RICHARDSON, Texas, March 10, 2006 - In a time when many U.S. companies are placing manufacturing facilities in places like India and China to save money, Texas Instruments has built a highly efficient, cost-cutting new semiconductor fabrication plant in Texas.

Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), features the new plant in its March 2006 issue, calling the facility a "state-of-the-art semiconductor factory."

Paul Westbrook, a mechanical engineer and manager of sustainable development at Texas Instruments, provided input for the article in Mechanical Engineering, titled "Efficiency is Its Own Reward." In the story, Westbrook explains how RFAB represents a harmony between energy efficiency and cost controls.

The plant, named RFAB, combines the best practices in cost controls, engineering ingenuity, corporate community relations, and environmental sustainability, according to the story. With RFAB, Texas Instruments made every effort to slash costs by incorporating energy efficiencies into nearly every component of the facility's design and construction.

For example, to reduce cooling costs in the 220,000 square-foot building, engineers designed a plastic membrane that reflects 85 percent of the sun's radiation from the roof. In addition, the windows in the administrative wing of the facility have been designed with special shelves that effectively reflect light far into room interiors, reducing the need for artificial lighting.

RFAB also has been designed with straight ducts and pipes rather than curved plumbing, allowing improved fluid, air and waste flows. The plant uses recycled water to run cooling equipment and irrigate indoor and outdoor landscaping.

The plant is expected to be fully operational by summer.

Greening the Cube: Choosing Eco-Friendly Office Furniture

Greening the Cube: Choosing Eco-Friendly Office Furniture
Grist Magazine

Buying eco-friendly desks, chairs, cabinets, space dividers, and other furniture is getting easier. With government agencies, universities, and corporations specifying greener products, furniture makers have been fairly quick to put environmental options on the table. Both large and smaller companies offer furniture made from sustainably harvested woods and recycled, bio-based, or nontoxic materials, and made with glues, paints, foams, and other ingredients that don't give off noxious odors.

Why bother with green furniture? What environmental harm could office furniture possibly cause?

Not much while you're sitting there, yakking it up on the phone. But furniture making has traditionally been a problematic source of emissions. And in this eco-conscious world, there is growing consideration given to what happens to furniture after it fulfills its useful life. In recent years, the major makers of office furniture have undertaken big changes. You should too.

Spit and Polish

Consider air pollution. Traditional manufacturing processes create emissions of volatile organic compounds from glues, stains, and finishes. VOCs are a major contributor to indoor air pollution and outdoor smog. Greener solutions include powder-based finishing coats, which not only are VOC-free, but require less energy and create less waste. About 95 percent of powder ends up on the product, compared to only about 60 percent of paint in traditional wet-spray processes.

And then there's wood. With increased pressure to reduce the use of hardwoods from poorly managed forests, companies have had to scrutinize their suppliers' sources, sometimes even tinkering with their most cherished product designs. Several years ago,
Herman Miller shook up the industry by announcing that some of its top-of-the-line furniture, including its classic Eames lounge chair, would switch from rosewood and Honduran mahogany to walnut and cherry. (For a recent anniversary edition of the chair, the company used Forest Stewardship Council-certified rosewood.)

At the
Knoll Group, another wood-sourcing leader, designers have committed to identifying wood producers "with the best overall forestry practices," according to a company spokesperson. Knoll works to verify lumber companies' sustainable practices and seeks out reclaimed lumber. For example, it has used red birch obtained from logs that sank in Midwestern rivers and lakes during turn-of-the-century lumbering operations.

Recycled materials, once shunned as second rate, are becoming much more common as well.
Steelcase uses a growing amount of recycled content in its steel and particle-board products. Knoll uses material made from recycled soda bottles in some chairs. Guilford of Maine, a leading supplier of fabrics to the office-furniture industry, also offers a line of upholstery fabrics made from recycled soda bottles.

Thinking beyond the factory floor, leading-edge companies are also designing for disassembly -- that is, making furniture that can be easily taken apart and fixed or recycled. Over the past few years, for instance, Herman Miller has adapted a "protocol for sustainability" that includes a rating tool for new products, a materials database, and disassembly guidelines and training procedures.

The idea, says Scott Charon, commodity manager in new product development at Herman Miller, began with customers' growing questions about green attributes. "We wanted to develop a tool to bring products to market that customers are asking for," he says. "This is an area where we wanted to be a leader." Charon noted that some larger customers are now putting environmental considerations ahead of cost.

Don't Table the Issue

So how do you choose green furniture? It helps to have some specifications of what you want -- and don't want. For example, the Denver office of the U.S. EPA is moving to a
new green building this year, and developed a set of environmental standards for the shift. Among other things, furniture must meet the certification standards of Greenguard, a nonprofit that evaluates products' effects on indoor air quality.

In addition, EPA is requiring that work-surface substrate (the base material beneath the laminated finish on desks and tables) be made from non-wood agricultural fiber, that wood used elsewhere be FSC-certified, and that laminated surfaces be adhered using water-based or bio-based glues. The specs also call for non-toxic dyes, fabric finishes made with recycled PET plastic, and recycled material in tiles and panels.

If new isn't for you, consider the refurbished route. Increasingly, companies are using refurbished desks, chairs, and space dividers, and a whole industry has grown up around providing these things. With good reason: each year, U.S. companies buy about 3 million desks, 16.5 million chairs, 4.5 million tables, and 11 million file cabinets. Experts estimate that about half this amount is thrown away annually; according to one estimate, that's enough to furnish all the offices in Boston.

Open Plan Systems, a "re-manufacturer" based in Richmond, Va., is a typical example of this trend. To offer lower-cost, recycled workstations, the company cleans and repaints metal, replaces fabric, and recycles used materials. Open Plan uses low-VOC coatings, fabrics made from recycled plastics, and other environmentally friendly processes.

Today's technology can work magic on furniture, turning ugly ducklings into -- well, if not beautiful swans, at least birds of another feather. With a bit of paint, new fabric, and some adjustments, it is possible to remodel an entire office using its original furnishings.

It's the environmental way: everything old is new again.


Joel Makower, a writer and consultant on corporate sustainability practices, is the founder of Green Business Network, producer of,, and

This article was first printed on March 2, 2006, as part of Makower's "Toiling Point" series on It has been reprinted with kind permission from that publication.