The ten UN Global Compact principles should be strengthened, says one of the Compact’s most long-running “critical supporters”, Mary Robinson. It is time to put pressure on business to walk the talk.
Mary Robinson
President and Chair of
The Board of Trustees
Mary Robinson Foundation –
Climate Justice,
Former President of Ireland,
UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Climate Change
“I think the very fact that corporations are talking a language of zero carbon, of the need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies, of the need for carbon pricing –
that’s all very important.”

There is one phrase that Mary Robinson wants to be repeated again and again – or at least until people really get the message: “We cannot continue with business as usual”.

“We need to understand that this is an extremely significant message and it goes beyond climate change and fossil fuels. It goes to how we consume, how we travel, how we live. We need a transformation, not just change, and businesses will have an
extraordinarily important role to play in that,” says Robinson. From 1990 to 1997, Robinson was President of Ireland, and from 1997 to 2002 she was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. During her tenure as High Commissioner, her “boss” as she puts it – then Secretary-General Kofi Annan – launched the UN Global Compact to mobilize private businesses behind the UN goals.

Despite the plan to engage business, which she supported, Robinson was a critic and still is. In her own words, she is a “supporter and a critic” of the UN Global Compact, taking the role as the “awkward voice, supporting the goals but pushing for more substance”. In her opinion the commitment made by businesses by adopting the Global Compact principles is too weak.

“I do acknowledge some of the achievements. The Global Compact has without a doubt taken the corporate responsibility and sustainability agenda to an  unprecedented global audience,” she says.

However, it is just not enough. Considering the challenges ahead, it is vital to engage businesses in transforming the entire economy, and this is not what she sees the UN Global Compact doing. “It’s too easy for companies to sign up and talk the talk
of sustainability without walking the walk,” she says.

“I see it not as criticism, but as questions about how to strengthen the effectiveness and legitimacy, and I believe the Global Compact needs to be aware of the risk of setting processes over principles. I think many member companies see the commitment to report on progress towards sustainable development as a sort of box to tick rather than something deeper. It’s too easy,” she says.

She does see new refreshing winds of change. Companies have been delisted from the Global Compact because they did not comply with the obligation to report on progress, and the Compact has introduced a differentiation programme allowing businesses to distinguish themselves by going further than the minimum requirements.

However, given the magnitude of the climatechange challenge, she sees a need to go much further.

“I think we need to understand that we are not talking about just adjusting the rules, it is a completely new ball game. Staying below two degrees Celsius means going to zero carbon by around 2050. I think we need companies to respond to that, to analyse their carbon footprint and to make plans to climate-proof their activities by 2050,” she says.

“And it’s not like business can’t do it,” she points out, highlighting the B Team group of corporate leaders. In February 2015, they urged governments and businesses to adopt an even more ambitious target of net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

“I think the very fact that corporations are talking a language of zero carbon, of the need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies, of the need for carbon pricing – that’s all very important,” says Robinson.

Robinson today heads The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice. This organization has a special focus on ensuring that the transformation to a more sustainable economy does not leave the poorest behind. She would like to see that
focus come closer to the UN Global Compact’s work, for example by aligning the work programmes more closely with the Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted in September 2015. It is a goal she believes businesses actually share.

“It’s in the interest of business that we have a more equal world that is more socially responsible and doesn’t leave anybody behind. This is the commitment in the Sustainable Development Goals, so perhaps in supporting these Goals, the Global Compact could try to encourage corporations to walk the talk of sustainable development,” she says


Mary Robinson sees a need to raise the bar for corporate sustainability and, in the context of the Global Compact, this implies a greater focus on the organization’s ten principles.

“I think we need to redouble the focus on the principles, and they in turn need to be brought up to standard. We have the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which are more ambitious than the Compact’s human rights principles. These could be incorporated into the Compact’s principles. The environmental principles could be inspired by the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals. I hope that the UN Global Compact can in a way reinvent itself with its ten principles at the centre to become a sharper platform for the transformative change we need,” says Robinson.