Acquire knowledge, impose requirements and verify

“The international sustainability practices of Swedish companies have to improve,” says Parul Sharma, a human rights lawyer who was recently named the most powerful woman in the Swedish business community by financial weekly Veckans Affärer. She believes there is a shortage of knowledge, skills and monitoring, and that the requirements imposed by companies are still far too lax.

In recent years, Parul Sharma has become one of the most influential people in the business community in terms of CSR, and her verdict of Swedish companies is harsh. “To be perfectly honest, there has been a lot of nonsense surrounding CSR!”

At the UN level, CSR, or corporate social responsibility, has been defined as a discipline comprising four components that involve human rights, anti-corruption, labour rights and environmental responsibility. Parul believes that many companies have interpreted these provisions as if they can select the elements they enjoy working with and integrate into the company’s approach to human rights.

“I am sorry, but you do not have the right to do that. That’s like saying we have picked a few articles from the legislation that we find exciting! I’m equally baffled every time I hear it. We are obligated to comply with the full spectrum,” she concludes.

The approach of companies to the Codes of Conduct is also criticised.

“There is an incredible amount of confidence in these Codes of Conduct and I don’t know whether this is naiveté or laziness. You can talk about it until the cows come home, but it means nothing unless the codes have real substance, as well as repercussions tied to them.”

As the daughter of two Indian immigrants Parul Sharma had an Indian upbringing in a Swedish environment. After upper secondary school, she opted to study law and applied to the criminal law programme, but soon became more interested in human rights. Between her internship at the Swedish Embassy in India and her work at the European Commission’s Delegation in New Delhi, she came to understand what real injustice meant and how you can change its causes. Today, she is a lawyer with the law firm Vinge and serves as Chair of the Swedish government’s delegation for the implementation of the UN goals, Agenda 2030.

What would you say is the greatest sustainability challenge facing Swedish companies today?

“Skills and knowledge regarding sustainability are two areas that still require a great deal of work, particularly concerning social issues. Nowadays, many companies, municipalities and organisations have environmental coordinators, though we seldom see human-rights coordinators, anti-corruption coordinators, or ILO coordinators. This is something that we must adopt and observe. ”

She believes, for example, that anti-corruption is a sensitive topic for Swedish companies.

“It’s a bit like discussing sexuality with people who are very religious! Corruption affects all sustainability issues, and corruption challenges also need to be addressed head on in Sweden, which does business in so many high-risk countries.”

“Sweden is currently ranked as the world’s third-least-corrupt country, but that only applies nationally. How things look beyond the country’s borders goes unreported. Environmental regulation bodies are not infrequently the most corrupt of all,” Parul reveals.

“They are often easy to buy. But if we begin thinking about how bribery and corruption affect the environment and the climate, then I think we have made good progress.”

She feels that we must increase our under-standing of how social behaviour affects the environment, and recalls an incident that made a significant impression on her.

“Fourteen years ago, we were at a cement plant in India where a group of women were sitting and mixing cement by hand. The water was running from a tap the whole time and, like a good Swedish inspector, I approached them and asked why they didn’t turn off the tap between refills to conserve resources. ”

The women became furious and scolded her. Did she not understand that if they turned off the tap all the time, they would lose several minutes of working time every hour, and that they were paid for the number of blocks they produced?

“Right then and there, it became extremely clear that in a country like India you cannot impose the responsibility on the enslaved women; it has to be imposed on us as clients and as the responsible parties. We must learn more about correlation, like understanding where the environmental risks lie in allowing human oppression. How do your economic and social behaviours impact the environment and the climate?”

Parul believes that regulations and legislation in Sweden still leave a lot to be desired.

“First and foremost, we need nationally binding legislation that requires companies to conduct due diligence using the entire CSR spectrum on every facet of their business, right down to each supplier.”

Several countries, including France, already have such legislation. Parul feels that the new Swedish law requiring sustainability reporting, which comes into effect next year, could be a step in this direction. 

“I am hopeful, but also feel there is a lack of discourse concerning the innovation of new skills, which is troubling.”

So what can a company do if it wants to take its share of responsibility for the global goals throughout its supply chain? Parul believes sustainability is a matter of inspection – just like a car, compliance must be monitored, inspected and undergo service on a regular basis.

“Not monitoring your supply chain constitutes substandard business and a degradation of human rights. Unless you can perform substantive check-ups, you should not be conducting business in fragile countries.”

Parul is currently helping companies perform check-ups on their operations. To date, she has performed more than 160 audits on supply chains in high-risk countries and high-risk industries worldwide.

“During the course of my work, I have be-come increasingly aware that audits are only about a third of the work. Suppliers often do not understand what is encompassed and what must be done to meet the requirements. The monitoring work itself is both where the costs lie and results are generated, provided it’s done properly. Training courses in partnership with suppliers, monitoring of results and hand-holding throughout the monitoring programme are hugely important.”

“We simply have to look beyond quarterly reports if we want to be able to look the next generation in the eyes and say that we did what we could.”