Photo/IllutrationNestle Chairman Paul Bulcke, right, is interviewed by Hiroko Kuniya. (Kazuo Yamamoto)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Human rights lie at the root of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which the United Nations adopted in 2015, because respect for human rights is indispensable for realizing all 17 goals in different fields.

Issues have been raised, in fact, of human rights violation in corporate activity. That raises the question of what businesses should do in striving to achieve the SDGs, and, in particular, “decent work and economic growth” (Goal 8), “reduced inequalities” (Goal 10) and “responsible consumption and production” (Goal 12).

Hiroko Kuniya, a news presenter and journalist, interviewed Paul Bulcke, chairman of Nestle S.A., about the issue. Nestle, the world’s largest food and beverage company, based in Switzerland, has drawn on its own experience in facing criticism as it has been pushing forward with reform.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

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Kuniya: Corporations are being called on to make sure their global economic activity is not causing violations of human rights. They are being called on to be responsible for what is occurring not only in their own operations but also in their supply chain. How do you see the trend over the issue of human rights?

Bulcke: Respect for human rights is one of our focal points in our business operations (in 189 countries of the world). Respect for people has been part of our fundamental principles as a company. We undergo an audit by a third party, and the audit reports are available for anybody to check.

Kuniya: Nestle received heavy criticism in 2010 from a global nongovernmental organization (NGO), which argued the company’s purchase of palm oil was causing deforestation of tropical rain forests in Indonesia. What is your take on that?

Bulcke: We have stated a goal saying that we will ensure by 2020 there will be no deforestation linked with our existence. We are cooperating with organizations that judge companies. We are working with an NGO in using satellites for monitoring. We are vulnerable to criticism, because we do so much that is tangible (for consumers). We are open to criticism. We listen, we take it into account and have a conversation.

There are different ways of looking at society. NGOs are actually these voices that keep us on high alert and awareness.

Kuniya: Many businesses are apparently finding it difficult to address the human rights issue on a broad base. What do you have to say about that?

Bulcke: How you approach the issue is linked with a fundamental attitude of your company. For Nestle, human rights represent a matter of conviction, and we have built it into our internal culture. When it comes to the issue of child labor at our cocoa plantations, for example, we make sure that children can go to school, and we do checks on that afterward. We also try to make sure their families will have a better livelihood. We do care about people.

Kuniya: Do you believe the SDGs have introduced new angles of view to similar efforts?

Bulcke: The framing of the SDGs has made it more explicit, both inside and outside our company, what we are trying to do. Nestle is working, through its operations, particularly intensively on the issues of poverty and nutrition, (support for) agriculture and rural development.

Kuniya: Many companies are thinking hard about how they could put their business in line with the SDGs, but many of them apparently still perceive that as an extra cost. What do you think?

Bulcke: If you are a short-term thinker, then you may feel like that. If you have a longer-term view on things, however, I don’t think being socially responsible is an additional cost per se, because that makes economic sense.

If you reduce water usage, for example, you are using less of a resource for the same output. Farmers will have a better livelihood, and they will have a better quality and a better yield of their crops.

Kuniya: That said, businesses may still find it difficult to ignore the intentions of shareholders and investors, who want them to pursue profit. What do you say to that?

Bulcke: We are certainly under pressure, too, but we are telling people that we, as a company, are thinking in the long term. A growing number of people are asking how goods are being made, and from what raw materials. Responsible behavior is a precondition for being there tomorrow and being accepted by consumers.

Kuniya: How do you see the significance of the word “ethical” in running a corporation?

Bulcke: Ethical behavior, I feel, is responsible behavior toward individuals, toward communities, toward society and toward the future. Why do we have (more than 300,000) employees waking up in the morning and being motivated (to work)? That is because our values as a company are about respect for yourself, respect for others, respect for diversity, and respect for the future.

We have the advantage of scale. The size allows our company to matter (in our efforts toward building a sustainable society).

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The Nestle Group, which deals in mineral water, coffee, baby food, dairy products and other goods, manufactures products under more than 2,000 brands at its 413 factories in 85 countries. Founded in 1866, the company posted sales of about 10.2 trillion yen ($93 billion) in 2017.

Nestle is known as a corporate pioneer in pursuing the SDGs. It has worked out a set of 41 commitments for different domains, including health and the environment, and has been publishing progress reports every year.

Nestle’s stated goals to be achieved by 2030 include improving nutrition for 50 million children, improving 30 million livelihoods in communities where the company procures raw materials, and zero environmental impact in the company’s operations.

Paul Bulcke, chairman of Nestle’s board of directors, joined the company in 1979. He served as head of Nestle’s German arm and in other stints before serving as CEO of Nestle S.A. for nine years. He has been in his current post since 2017.