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Sustainable supply chains and safety: how technology can be a tool for human rights.
In 2015 the United Nations announced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The goals, which are all underpinned by human rights, aim to create a more sustainable society - free from poverty, inequality and injustice. At the launch event, the former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated: “It is time to transform business models so they meet people’s needs. This will also drive corporate growth and success.”
In particular, SDG 8 presents a clear challenge for businesses. The goal calls on society to promote “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” Its targets include sustainable job creation, resource efficiency, labour and human rights, youth employment and equal labour rights. While policy, legislation and consumer pressure are driving changes in many companies, there is a clear role for innovative technology to help businesses work towards SDG 8 and tackle human rights issues.
Supply chains are often extremely complex. For companies determined to ensure transparency and respect for human rights, technology can play an increasingly important role. There are many examples of blockchain apps that track and verify goods as they pass through long and complex supply chains. This provides a level of transparency and control that is not possible with typical centralized databases. This unalterable, self-certifying chain of custody for goods and services allows companies to identify potential human rights violations quickly and to collect the information needed to implement solutions.
The technology doesn’t always have to be complex. Marks and Spencer, Next, Pentland Brands and Sainsbury’s have developed a new responsible sourcing app, Everyone's Business. The simple smartphone app prompts users – those visiting supplier sites regularly, such as merchandisers, quality managers and buyers – to spot the signs of potential ethical trade issues when they’re out visiting sites. Users’ observations are captured within the app, which are then sent to the companies’ ethical trade team. The team can use this information to take any necessary action, manage risks and inform decision making.
Protecting those working in a supply chain by knowing their workplace and working hours is just one of the ways that technology can support labour rights. Workers also have the right to safe working conditions. Audits will often highlight areas of concern, but this only provides a snapshot in time and does not always catch ongoing issues. Ensuring worker safety requires other innovative technologies.
Hitachi’s Social Innovation Business aims to develop solutions that provide real benefits to society and create a safer, smarter and more sustainable world. Hitachi Video Analytics, an innovative video system combined with an artificial intelligence platform, is one example. It is already being used to turn public areas into smart spaces that help to keep people safe, and there is huge scope to apply the technology in other environments. It could be applied in factories and industrial areas to prevent overcrowding or to identify workers operating in high-risk areas. The video system can pick up on clothing and could be used to ensure appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is being worn, or it could analyse workers’ movements in factories to help them avoid repetitive strain injuries. Once the challenge to make these systems commercially viable is overcome video analytics could have a significant benefit for improving employee safety at work.
There is great potential for technology to address human rights issues and work towards SDG 8 by providing “decent work for all.” We are already seeing the impact that simple solutions can have on supply chains, and more advanced technology could help to keep employees safe from potential hazards. Technology can bring new capabilities to age-old industries and drive improvements for workers across the value chain. More companies than ever are using the SDGs to guide their business operations and product development, and without technological development the pace of change would be much slower.