Hiding in the Light: the Misuse of Disclosure to Advance the Business and Human Rights Agenda

In June 2017, Waitrose, a top UK supermarket, pulled its cans of corned beef off the shelves after an investigation revealed that the meat might have been produced with slave labor. At the time of the recall, Waitrose was in compliance with the UK Modern Slavery Act (MSA), a 2015 law enacted to prevent human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Under the MSA, corporations are required to file annual reports disclosing what action they had taken to eradicate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains. The Modern Slavery Act, in turn, was a much-lauded law that is part of the growing trend of States to move the international business and human rights agenda forward. A key component of that agenda involves disseminating the UN’s Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework and implementing the UN Guiding Principles, which have been praised by States around the world as a framing mechanism for issues of corporate accountability for negative human rights impacts in a corporation’s operations and relationships with its suppliers. The aim of this Article is to analyze whether the business and human rights agenda (as embodied by the Three Pillar Framework and UN Guiding Principles) is well served with national laws that focus on disclosure. The Article will focus primarily on rules being implemented in the United States at both the subnational and national level, however, it will also discuss approaches being used in European jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom and France and the overall trend towards a transparency model for human rights protection from business activities. The increased use of disclosure-based regulation (and the resulting compliance efforts by corporations) seems to come, at least in part, as a result of the efforts by States to address the duties laid out for them in the UN Guiding Principles. As such, it seems appropriate to undertake an analysis regarding whether these laws are in fact effective at implementing the Guiding Principles. For decades now, disclosure has been held out as the ultimate curative for every corporate woe. The expansion of disclosure initiatives from mere investment related issues to increasingly social policy issues would indicate that this trend will continue. Yet as this article demonstrates, right now, disclosure is at best a temporary stop gap measure that can lead to limited corporate change on the issue of business and human rights. At worst, disclosure is being used by corporations as a way to obtain a reputational advantage without actually making substantive changes – by simply hiding in the light. 

56 Colum. J. Transnat'l L. 530