By Karin Buhmann.
In early 2017 CBS accepted an invitation from the Organisation of Economic Collaboration and Development (OECD) to become an OECD Knowledge Partner. As an OECD Knowledge Partner, CBS joins a small group of prestigious universities – including the University of Geneva, the University of Sydney, London School of Economics and SciencesPo (Institut d’études politiques de Paris) – that are invited to share and discuss research based knowledge with the OECD, thus enhancing its ability to deliver on regional and global challenges related to economic collaboration and development. For 2017 CBS was invited to participate in two key ways: scholarly interaction at the annual political OECD Global Forum, and contributing an article to the OECD Yearbook. Both were connected to the topic at this year’s Global Forum: Bridging Divides, with particular focus on inclusive growth, digitalization, and trust.
Three CBS professors (Karin Buhmann (MSC), Kim Andersen (DIG), and Christian Asmussen (SMG) and the CBS Vice-President for International Affairs (Dorte Salskov-Iversen, who is also Head of Department of MSC) participated in the OECD Global Forum, which took place at the OECD Headquarters in Paris on 6-8 June 2017. Presenting and moderating at an ‘Idea Factory’, Professor Kim Andersen shared views on artificial intelligence. Professors Christian Geisler Rasmussen and Karin Buhmann interacted with OECD experts on issues of Inclusive Growth and the Location Choices of Multinational Firms (Geisler Rasmussen) and The role and challenges of OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises for building trust through Responsible Business Conduct in a context of global competition (Buhmann).
Responsible Business Conduct and Competition: OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and responsible supply chain management
By Karin Buhmann, Copenhagen Business School
Surprised looks with colleagues or students are commonplace when I observe that the OECD plays an important part for the promotion of responsible business conduct (RBC), not just in OECD countries but globally. RBC is OECD ‘speak’ for corporate social responsibility, corporate sustainability and other terms indicating an expectation that businesses take responsibility for their impact on society. The OECD’s key normative instrument for RBC, the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and the remedy institution that adhering states commit to establishing, the National Contact Points (NCPs), are relevant to help offset some of the social cost that competition causes to employees and communities. The Guidelines provide norms of conduct for MNEs and for how they should act to avoid harmful impact caused by their supply chains. Revised several times since first adopted in 1976, the Guidelines provide normative standards in regard to human rights, labour/employment and industrial relations, environment, bribery, consumer concerns, science and technology, competition and technology. The Guidelines also apply to institutional investors, including minority shareholders. Jurisprudence (‘case law’) emerging through complaints (‘specific instances’) handled by NCPs elaborates the practical implications of the Guidelines for companies and investors, within and beyond the sector and country concerned by each case. Like the Guidelines have extraterritorial reach beyond MNE home states, NCPs may also deal with business conduct arising in non-OECD states or other states having acceded to the Guidelines (provided a connection to that state).
A case that was recently handled by the Danish NCP highlights the pertinence of OECD’s Guidelines at a time when SMEs too have transnational operations, as well as of the evolving guidance developed by NCPs. The case concerned a Danish textile company that sourced from a supplier in the Rana Plaza building at the time of its collapse in 2013.
The Guidelines are recommendations from governments to companies operating in or out of states (whether or not OECD-Members) adhering to the Guidelines. With the 2011 revision, the Guidelines adopted the risk-based due diligence approach. This is a process for companies to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for their impact on society. Whereas corporate legal or financial liability due diligence aims at protecting the company against harm, risk-based due diligence is about protecting society against harm caused by the company or its business relations. Of course, if done well it also protects the company against liability or reputational harm.
The case on the Danish textile company concerned the adequacy of the company’s due diligence to prevent harm directly linked to its operations by a business relationship. The NCP found that the company did not apply processes for due diligence in compliance with OECD’s MNE Guidelines. In particular, the company failed to make demands that its supplier ensure employees’ human and labour rights, including through adequate steps to ensure occupational health and safety. As to whether the company had acted consistent with what it argued to be buyer practice in regard to building inspection, the NCP observed that practice by itself may be indicative, but not conclusive regarding the scope of risk-based due diligence. In other words, a company must think and act for itself in regard to demands on suppliers to take appropriate measures to ensure health and safety in the workplace. Thus, the NCP statement elaborates on the practical implications of the Guidelines and due diligence for companies in the textile and other sectors for the future, in regards to building safety and supply chain management.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building was a wake-up call in many OECD countries concerning the human and social cost that can be the price for the quest for economic gain that drives much competition. Global companies have long taken advantage of wage differentials and weak regulation to keep costs low. Concerns with labour and human rights have been strong if too often ineffective drivers for corporate change and the conditions for competition. The textile sector is not unique in competition causing adverse social or environmental impacts. Agri-industry and mining are among sectors in which adverse social and environmental impacts of business activity are regularly reported. Enhanced knowledge of OECDs MNE Guidelines may contribute to promoting RBC in such transnational economic activities.
 OECD (2014) Scope and application of ‘Business Relationships’ in the financial sector under OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, Paris: OECD Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct.
 The term was adopted from the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), United Nations Human Rights Council (2011) UN Doc. A/HRC/17/31.
 Krugman P, Obstfeld M, and Melitz M (2014). International Economics: Theory and Policy, Global Edition. 10th ed. Online: Pearson.
 Ruggie J (2013) Just Business – Multinational Corporations and Human Rights. Boston: W.W. Norton.
Karin Buhmann is professor at Copenhagen Business School (CBS) where she is charged with special responsibilities for Business & Human Rights, and a part-time member of the Danish National Contact Point (NCP) under OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Her academic background is in international human rights law.
Pic by Solidarity Center, edited by BOS.