Engaging on the little things that will become our future

 By Tytti Kaasinen, Senior Engagement Manager at GES

Children make up almost a third of the world’s population and are pertinent for business in various ways: as customers, employees’ family members, workers, and key stakeholders in local communities and society at large. These are the people who will run the world in the future, but before they grow up to take that role, children are often the invisible, yet most significantly affected group, with unique vulnerabilities and needs. It is possible that business activities that have no negative impact on adults may be very harmful to children’s rights and well-being. Still, while the links between business and human rights are becoming increasingly acknowledged and addressed, the attention to children’s rights specifically is still rather low. At the same time, failing to mitigate and manage child-related risks – not to mention missing out on the opportunities – can have material consequences to companies. Universal ownership, responsible investment, fiduciary duties and long-termism are all inherently linked to ensuring that the children of today are taken into account.

When considering children’s rights in the context of business, many immediately take that as meaning child labour. Granted, this has been a media favourite and many companies have learned the significance of it the hard way, and while child labour globally has decreased by a third since year 2000, it is still a big problem in many industries. Companies and investors must keep addressing this topic, and it is something that we at GES continue engaging with several companies on.  But child labour is not by any means the only aspect of children’s rights that has relevance to companies, and it is essential to broaden and deepen the understanding of the concept accordingly. Children’s Rights and Business Principles, launched by the UN Global Compact, UNICEF and Save the Children in 2012, did a great job in detailing in a very practical manner the full range of issues that companies should address in order to ensure respect and support for children’s rights. Likewise, many of the new Sustainable Development Goals include a direct or implicit reference to the important role that the fulfilment of children’s rights – way beyond the elimination of child labour – plays in the broader 2030 agenda.

We want to see increased awareness and integration of children’s rights also in the investment community. The saying goes that what gets measured gets managed, and so we started by establishing the current status of children’s rights considerations in the investment decision-making process. GES cooperated with the Global Child Forum in 2014 and 2015 to survey PRI’s asset owner signatories’ perceptions to the topic, with the results indicating that very few investors have so far properly incorporated children’s rights in their policies and procedures. At the same time, it was becoming apparent that some of our clients and other progressive investors were leading the way on addressing this issue and had an interest to do more.

The logical next step for us was of course to try to do our part in spreading the word on children’s rights integration on one hand and galvanise concrete investor action on the other. To that end, we initiated a webinar series with expert speakers, whereby two sessions have been held so far and a third one is planned for early 2016. We have equally enjoyed the opportunity to present the survey findings and stimulate dialogue regarding investors’ role at Global Child Forums in May 2014 and November 2015 respectively. The surroundings are impressive, with 400 high level representatives from all over the world gathering in the Royal Palace in Stockholm under the watchful eye of the King and Queen of Sweden, and I have personally found these events very inspiring and encouraging: if all those important people are so determined to push forward with the children’s rights agenda, how could there not be progress!

After awareness comes action, and we are now launching a thematic engagement project on children’s rights. The angle we have chosen is children’s rights in media and marketing, but this is not only because the related risks and opportunities for the associated companies can be very material. Neither is it just because of our belief that this is an area where businesses will be increasingly expected to demonstrate responsible behaviour by the public and policy-makers alike, and hence proactive engagement is in order to encourage investee companies to stay ahead of the curve. No, we have also chosen this focus because media – both the social and traditional kinds – and the targeting of children with specific products and services is where children can be empowered, active stakeholders instead of mere victims or passive recipients of whatever is decided by adults to impose on them. Here, corporate actions can have instant as well as long-reaching impacts on the development and well-being of their youngest stakeholders, in good and bad. Encouraging companies to adapt their offerings to the needs of the child therefore has the potential to influence what kind of consumers and digital citizens, and ultimately future employees and decision-makers, the next generation will grow up to be. And that, if anything, is responsible investors taking a long-term approach.

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