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BIPR | Multinational Corporation in the Vortex of ESG and Geopolitical Pressures
Multinational Corporation in the Vortex of ESG and Geopolitical Pressures

February 16, 2023 - 11:30

Bennett Freeman, Bennett Freeman Associates LLC, US

Event Recap

Bennett Freeman, Associate Fellow at Chatham House and international consultant for corporations, NGOs and foundations on ESG, human rights, and labor issues, opens his presentation by stating that it rests on a dual premise: first, that multinational corporations exert massive power and impact, for better or worse; and second, that corporations have important roles to play in today's complex, globalized world. He affirms Adam Tooze's description of the world in a "polycrisis," amidst "megathreats." Freeman asserts that this context poses an existential threat to multinational corporations which are dependent on the stability of the international rules-based order, the system defining the international community and underpinning the global economy. Freeman provides recommendations to the corporate world to best navigate today's crises.

Freeman identifies war and conflict, superpower tension and potential confrontation as the supreme threats to multinational corporations, which compound all other crises, from climate change and the disruption of energy sources to poverty and food insecurity. Freeman points to the global energy transition as an example of future geopolitical conflict, with brewing competition for critical minerals that power renewable energy sources.

The two main geopolitical threats are the Russia-Ukraine war and U.S.-China relations, with China's balloon in North American airspace as the latest event in the latter struggle. Multinational corporations are pressured to take stands on such issues at the convergence of geopolitical, ethical and material dilemma. However, it is also the threat to the international rules-based order, the norms of which are the bedrock of trade and investment and the framework to address the climate crisis, that should incentivize corporations to take these conflicts seriously.

These issues and dilemmas set the stage for corporate responsibility and accountability. For example, in February 2022 there was an exodus of western corporations out of Russia so as not to support or benefit from its economy amid its war effort. Here, Freeman points to the complex implications of corporate responses to geopolitical conflict: neither BP nor Shell are fully out of Russia due to legal and logistical problems slowing the process, and foreign employees of multinational corporations face potential conscription the longer they stay. The business world is also pressured to address China's use of forced labor of the oppressed Uyghur population in its supply chains. Freeman gives the example of H&M, which publicly opposed human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and had its online presence in China erased by the Chinese government in retaliation. There will be fewer win-win solutions and more zero-sum outcomes as corporations are forced to weigh tough tradeoffs and make hard choices in response to these pressures and dilemmas.

Freeman calls for a new notion of geopolitical corporate responsibility, informed by a fusion between geopolitical risk analysis and human rights due diligence. This will mitigate corporations directly or indirectly contributing to human rights abuses while supporting efforts to maintain the international rules-based order. Freeman sees this as a prescription that has been established for some time but that needs renewed support and wider adoption given the threat that current geopolitical tensions pose to the stability of the business world. Freeman affirms the legitimacy of ESG and sustainable investing, which, though not perfect, has been unfairly condemned by certain groups in the U.S. as being prone to greenwashing and "woke capitalism." Freeman encourages multinational corporations to rise to the occasion in navigating these pressures, which threaten the international rules-based order on which the business world is dependent.

Full Audio:

Multinational Corporation in the Vortex of ESG and Geopolitical Pressures

hosted by Professor Michael G. Plummer

Bennett Freeman
Bennett Freeman Associates LLC, US

Bennett Freeman is currently Associate Fellow in International Law at Chatham House. He consults for major corporations, foundations and NGOS through Bennett Freeman Associates LLC, as a Senior Advisor for BSR, Senior Advisor to Critical Resource and Strategic Partner of RESOLVE. Previously he was Senior Vice President, Sustainability Research and Policy for Calvert Investments; Managing Director and Senior Counselor, Global Corporate Responsibility, Burson-Marsteller; Principal, Sustainable Investment Strategies; and a Clinton presidential appointee in three positions at the U.S. Department of State, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Over the last 18 years of a 35-year career, Freeman has worked at the intersection of governments, international institutions, multinational corporations, responsible investors and NGOs to promote human rights and sustainable development around the world. An innovative leader in the fields of business and human rights, natural resource governance and responsible investment, he has played key roles in developing several multi-stakeholder initiatives and global standards that have strengthened corporate responsibility in industries from extractives to information and communications technology. He serves as Chair of the Advisory Board of Global Witness (GW); Board Secretary of the Global Network Initiative; a member of the Governing Board of the Natural Resources Governance Institute (NRGI); Chair of the Board of EG Justice; Chair of the Advisory Board of the Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN); a Trustee of the Mountain Institute; a member of the Human Rights Advisory Council of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR); an Advisor and co-founder of the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB); a Director of the Oxfam America Advocacy Fund (OAAF); a member of the Advisory Board of the Conflict Risk Network (CRN); and a member of the Board of the Institute of Human Rights and Business USA.

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