Freedom of Expression

This past week I attended a workshop about corporate performance on human rights in business.  People from different sectors were brought together to sort out the “high road” for firms.  We were asked to suspend our thinking about the daily puzzles we work through and try to see the big picture.  What are the biggest targets for the largest of corporations to advance human rights?  How can corporate performance be measured against big goals?

The workshop set a broader scope than I am used to thinking within.  The end of the supply chain isn’t the retailer, they emphasized, but the investment manager.  On behalf of clients they are tasked with weeding risks like slavery and paramilitary and political deals out of their portfolio.  They need to knit positive advancements on environment, social and governance into their portfolio.  Environmental, social and governance (ESG) refers to the three main areas of concern that have developed since 2014 as central factors in measuring the sustainability and ethical impact of an investment in a company or business (thank you Wikipedia).

For part of it, I was confused.  At Sustainability Incubator we work on very simple things about real people even if some of the themes are large and challenging (“combating slavery in supply chains” and “improving fisheries”).  Most days I have my head dug into “what business can do” …can corporations set big human goals anyway?  It was harder than it may sound to think about it and to be a good contributor to a diverse group.

The reason for initial confusion was I couldn’t see a direct link in the fishing industry.  Then one of the people in our smaller breakout group for food business used a word, future-casting.  I didn’t get it right away because I’ve been drilling into the present concerns of sustainable seafood for some time.  Others at our table shared ideas about a dignified life with freedom of expression and self determination for producers.  I’ll be honest, I couldn’t at first square with the realities I face everyday around an absolute lack of agency for millions of migrant crew on fishing, reefer and supply vessels worldwide.  I almost felt we were projecting our privilege onto the most vulnerable people in a naive way.

But that was my shortcoming.  For the ball to drop it took not only a very long flight series home and a very big sleep but listening to music.  Prince and David Bowie of course.  What do these genius artists share?  Why, they represent a dignified life.  A single person on this planet can create dignity through freedom of expression and self determination.   They showed it in music which touches us.

It turns out I was doing the very thing I was afraid of at the workshop.  Surrounded by high level people there’s me, born and raised in a mining town and holding tight to the negative experiences of people affected by big industry, in places like where I come from, when their realities aren’t factored into the business model.  But my own life is proof there are positive, expansive and incredible opportunities for growth and change as well.  I betray what I’m here for when I forget it.

When respect for dignity is part of an investment to reach people at the front end of supply chains the return is better profitability and a longer run of success.  When it isn’t well we know what happens.  Maybe not all agree but it’s truth for me and I have lived it in seafood since 1995.  It has not been easy — because it is not easy — but I love seafood and its future.  There is nothing to do but roll up the sleeves and keep going with a smile.

It was amazing to share the middle of a work week with sector-level decision-makers and a privilege to focus on advancing the shared responsibility for human rights in business.   It was an interesting time to be in New York City.  Glorious Spring weather and political times.  I felt a part of the experiment of democracy which is singular and beautiful in this country.  It is a very special thing about living and working in the USA.