Holding business accountable

Article as analysis
Responsible Business Initiative: with the popular majority on its side, the uniquely broad coalition consisting of 130 civil society organisations can feel justifiably triumphant.

Can the business lobby be really pleased at its narrow referendum victory, which materialised only for lack of a cantonal majority, but above all thanks to an unprecedented campaign of scaremongering? The fact is that a 50.7 per cent-majority of the Swiss electorate voted “Yes”. They opposed the forces which for decades believed that they could steer Swiss policies to suit their interests, while largely ignoring the rights of people and the environment in the global South.

While the defeat of the Responsible Business Initiative (RBI) at the polls must be accepted, the following should be clearly noted: with the popular majority on its side, the uniquely broad RBI coalition consisting of 130 civil society organisations can feel justifiably triumphant. Never before have Switzerland’s global responsibility and business model ever been so intensively discussed across all conceivable media channels. Never before have the arguments of economiesuisse, SwissHoldings, the Swiss Union of Crafts and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises and of the Swiss Farmers' Union ever faced such strong headwinds. It was only by dubious means that these forces, which obviously set greater store by preserving power and profit than by observing human rights and environmental standards in developing countries, were able to impose their interpretation of things.

A majority of voters in the cities and in Latin Switzerland were not prepared to be duped about the meaning of responsible entrepreneurship by a campaign riddled with untruths and distortions. Many far-sighted entrepreneurs and investors too have rejected the hardline, uncompromising attitude of the old-school managers, questioned their supporters and pointed to a different and sustainable way forward for the economy.

The outcome of the referendum of 29 November means that the indirect counterproposal brought into play by economiesuisse and Federal Councillor Karin Keller-Sutter will now take effect. What it lacks in particular is a cross-sectoral duty of due diligence and an accountability mechanism, which would prompt companies with human rights and environmental risks in their business dealings to assess and tackle those risks seriously. Instead, we will now be reading reports documenting selected measures pertaining to social and environmental sustainability. But as we know, paper is patient; there will still be corporations that undertake this reporting merely as an exercise in tokenism, with no consequences whatsoever for them. This much is clear: the RBI coalition, which Alliance Sud too has been instrumental in shaping from the start, will also be keeping a close watch in the future. It will hold the business sector responsible for supporting Switzerland's urgently needed contribution to global sustainable development – the core theme of this edition of “global”.