Germany Adopts Revolutionary Supply Chain Human Rights Laws
While the title states that Germany’s newly adopted that targets human rights abuse across global supply chains is “revolutionary” ─ which it is ─, it certainly shouldn’t be. But nonetheless, today, on June 11th, 2021, the German Parliament has ushered in a long-awaited shift to mandatory company compliance rules. After months of negotiation, the German lawmakers finally pushed it over the finish line within the final days of the current legislative period. The bill will see German multinational corporations held legally responsible for any human rights or environmental abuses found across their global supply chains.
“The German government has taken a critical step to ensure that companies operate responsibly,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate director, children's rights division, at Human Rights Watch. “Respect for human rights in global supply chains is not something that should be optional.”
This news comes at a time when global corporations are already being pushed towards environmental, social and governance (ESG) compliance, with a massive drive to reduce Scope 1, 2, and 3 carbon emissions from their supply chain operations and a concerted effort to avoid suppliers and manufacturers that do not meet the standards that industry-leading companies are now expected to meet.
Who will the new law affect?
With Germany’s new legislation, organisations that fail to meet the rules and regulations could be forced to pay fines potentially equivalent to 2% of their annual global turnover. However, it isn’t applicable to all.
According to Reuters, under the act, companies above a certain size will be forced to establish set due diligence procedures that prevent the abuses; from 2023, only companies with more than 3,000 employees in Germany will be affected. From 2024, the rules will expand to companies with more than 1,000 employees.
Statistics from within the country suggest that the first stage of this regulation rollout will affect 900 companies, while the second stage will put 4,800 companies under the spotlight. The bill will also enable the government to temporarily exclude from public tenders companies that receive fines in excess of €175,000.
“Incalculable risks arise for companies,” said Joachim Lang, general manager at the Federation of German Industry. A word of warning from a respected leader, at a time when industry lobby groups and wholesale businesses fear that the new law increases bureaucracy and suggest that price rises may be inbound.
The Take of German Giants
After looking at the incoming legislation, Daimler AG, known more commonly as the automotive giant Mercedes-Benz, a company which, should there happen to be any ESG-compliance issues along its multinational supply chain, would pay a hefty fee, is welcoming of the push for change but hesitant about certain aspects of the bill.
“Daimler's position is: The respect for human rights is a central aspect of our sustainable business strategy. We, therefore, welcome the progress made on the Supply Chain Act. Although the regulations are very ambitious, the proposed legislation has a sound approach overall. It is based on internationally recognised human rights and on international agreements. And it gives companies more legal certainty in an area that has so far only been partially regulated.
Supply chains are not "chains" but rather exceedingly complex networks: Daimler alone has over 60,000 direct suppliers - and many more sub-suppliers. For this reason, we also consider the proposed risk-based gradual model to be sensible. The responsibility of the companies lies primarily in their own business area and with their direct suppliers. Companies must then take action in the deeper supply chain if there are concrete indications of human rights violations. Daimler AG already does that today.
Even though we support the proposed legislation in principle, we consider some aspects to be critical, e.g. the planned fines of up to 2% of the average annual turnover. Instead of threats of sanctions, we consider concrete measures, which companies must take in the event of deficits, to be more expedient. In addition, certain wordings are still vague and leave room for interpretation. Terms such as, e.g. "fair standard of living" should be phrased precisely in order to create legal certainty. Furthermore, documentation and reporting requirements should not lead to unnecessary bureaucracy and should be harmonised with existing rules. On the one hand, this does not help the people on the ground, and on the other hand, it puts a burden on the companies – and the implementation can pose substantial challenges for smaller companies in particular.”
This law is arguably one of the most important developments in the supply chain space so far this year. But it must be remembered that changes do not and will not happen at the push of a button and that democratic principles should be applied to the discussion prior to enshrining legislation into tablature. Environmental and human rights advocacy is a hike, not a brisk walk around the park ─ so, for German companies, it’s time to get their boots on the ground and start assessing their global, interconnected supply chain operations. And, hopefully, they’ll set a stellar example for the rest of us.
A Watershed Moment for Sustainability Commitments
Last month saw a landmark ruling where Royal Dutch Shell was instructed to significantly step up its 2030 climate commitments and slash absolute emissions by 45% compared to 2019 levels. This ruling represents a considerable advance on Shell’s stated aim to cut 45% of its emissions intensity compared to 2016 levels by 2035 – a target which provided leeway for increasing emissions as long as the relative carbon emitted per unit of energy produced fell. Now, this imposes a much larger climate obligation on Shell in calling for an urgent absolute reduction.
A ruling that sent ripples through the oil, gas, and energy sector
A watershed moment, this ruling is sure to cause significant alarm amongst fellow oil and gas giants who recognise – for perhaps the first time – that national courts can compel organisations to accelerate their reduction of harmful emissions under the Paris Agreement. Not only does it have "far-reaching" consequences for Shell itself and may even curb the potential growth of the company, but the decision is also likely to set a legal precedent for other energy companies and corporations. According to Thom Wetzer from Oxford University, who heads up the sustainable law programme: “all companies in the energy industry and all heavy emitters will be put on notice and have to accelerate their decarbonisation plans.”
This court mandate applies to not only the Shell group’s own operations but notably also to all the suppliers and customers of the group – strongly implying that Shell is being asked to tackle its Scope 3 emissions. Consequently, it is clear that Shell cannot meet the ruling’s demands alone; to make an impact across all carbon emissions scopes, Shell and other large businesses must immediately look towards forging new, productive partnerships with supplier stakeholders. Failing to do this not only means missed targets and mounting legislative action but also the reputational damage that this will cause to its brand and the company.
Activist investor warns of existential business risk
Reports on the Shell ruling were almost immediately followed by news of a coup attempt in American oil and gas corporation Exxon Mobil. Due to concerns surrounding Exxon’s strategic direction, hedge fund Engine No. 1 ousted sitting board members, stating that the climate crisis poses an "existential threat to the business", which the board has been reluctant to confront.
This small hedge fund accused Exxon of "a failure to take even initial steps towards evolution" and of "obfuscating rather than addressing long-term business risk", partly due to a historical lack of energy industry experience in Exxon’s board. This signalled an imminent shift in the company’s sustainability strategy, which was well received by the market, with Exxon’s shares rising 1.2% the day after the event.
The drive to reduce Scope 3 emissions
And if that wasn’t enough of a shakeup, this was followed by American multinational energy corporation Chevron’s shareholders voting 61% in favour of a proposal to cut Scope 3 emissions at their AGM, signalling frustration with the company’s slack approach towards climate change. Chevron has thus far failed to match its competitors’ net-zero targets with any commitments of its own.
For those less familiar, corporate emissions fall into three categories: Scope 1, 2, and 3. Scope 1 covers emissions from sources that an organisation directly owns or controls. Scope 2 refers to emissions from purchased electricity, steam, heating, and cooling that the reporting company consumes over the course of its operations. And Scope 3 is everything else – all other indirect emissions that occur within an organisation’s value chain, both up and downstream.
Why is this significant? Until now, Scope 3’s heady combination of difficult-to-manage and thus far easy-to-ignore has led large companies to abdicate responsibility for their value chain and sweep its emissions under the carpet. However, the Shell ruling indicates that this approach is no longer viable for big business. With courts stepping in and dictating climate policy to corporations as well as governments, the pressure is mounting on all heavy emitters to tackle their true impact and reduce Scope 3 emissions.
As organisations like Shell, Chevron and Exxon are considered responsible for the actions of their entire ecosystems, sustainability performance becomes contingent on supplier behaviour. The clearest example of this lies in Scope 3 emissions which, for many organisations, considerably exceeds the CO2 they emit directly.
Therefore, the time for green-washing and lip service is now over as pressure mounts from all stakeholder groups for large corporates to take decisive action on sustainability in the supply chain. However, businesses cannot turn promises into concrete progress without actively collaborating with stakeholders across the value chain.
For every five weeks that pass, we lose 1% of the decade
2030, the deadline for achievement of UN SDG-related climate commitments, is fast looming, and with every five weeks that pass, we lose 1% of the decade. The imperative to take immediate action has never been clearer. It’s now down to procurement, wider business leaders, and their associated supplier ecosystems to put sustainability strategy into action by:
● Defining, aligning, and communicating their corporate sustainability goals to focus suppliers, partners and the wider stakeholder groups on how they can make an impact.
● Collaborating systematically through technology using transparent processes that develop trust with suppliers and partners.
● Harnessing the innovation and IP within the supplier ecosystem, turning ideas into projects that can be managed and reported on transparently, and adding clear value trackers to prove impact.
Working closely with stakeholders in the supply chain is an infamously complex process, but it can be made that much simpler using Supplier Collaboration & Innovation (SC&I) technology. This ensures strategic alignment between buyer and supplier and provides comprehensive relationship governance and real-time performance visibility. This allows companies and their suppliers to work on sustainability initiatives more cohesively and develop innovative ideas through collaboration.
Here at Vizibl – through our SC&I platform combined with our knowledge and expertise – we are helping large enterprise organisations in the energy sector better leverage their supplier relationships and move closer to meeting those lofty 2030 sustainability goals.