United Nations Global Compact (UNGC)

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The United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) is a voluntary framework, created by the United Nations (UN) in July 2000 to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt socially responsible and sustainable business practices.1
The UNGC describes itself as “the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative”,2 aimed to support companies to do business responsibly and to “advance broader societal goals, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, with an emphasis on collaboration and innovation”.3

As of October 2017 the UNGC had over 13,000 participants, consisting of 9,000 companies and more than 4,000 “non-businesses” including public sector organizations, cities, and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).4

Relationship with the Tobacco Industry

Tobacco Company Membership

When the UNGC was first established, the UNGC Office did not exclude tobacco companies, but “actively discouraged” their participation.5
The UNGC’s official Tobacco Company Policy read:

UNGC actively discourages tobacco companies from participation in the initiative and does not accept funding from tobacco companies. It also does not permit tobacco companies to make presentations at any of its global events or to use the global brand in any other way to raise their profile. Since tobacco is a legal product whose use UN Member States have not yet outlawed, the Global Compact Office is not able to exclude tobacco companies from the initiative if they still wish to join”.

Consequently, up to October 2017 UNGC’s participants included British American Tobacco’s (BAT) Brazilian subsidiary Souza Cruz, Philip Morris International (PMI), Plasencia Cigars, and Fuenta Cigar Ltd.

Image 1: Screenshot of letter sent to UNGC CEO and Executive Director on behalf of over 200 parties

UNGC was one of several UN agencies with tobacco industry members. Another UN agency with tobacco industry links is the (ILO), an observer to the FCTC’s Conference of the Parties (COP), and partner of Japan Tobacco International (JTI) on labour issues within the tobacco supply chain and labour rights in tobacco farming.6

Concerns Over Corporations Abusing UNGC Membership

Critics have argued that the UNGC, and similar initiatives, act as point of entry for large corporations to increase their policy influence upon the UN and its agencies,78 and are used as public relations instrument for companies who might benefit from a visible UN association.9

For example, PMI released two ‘communications on progress’ in 201610 and 201711 (UNGC members are required annually to demonstrate their commitment to UNGC’s aims12), and both were used to promote the tobacco company’s controversial illicit trade research funding initiative, PMI IMPACT.13 PMI also used the communications to rehabilitate its corporate image and present itself as a responsible and accountable business with the communications suggesting PMI’s support for “broader UN goals” such as the UN’s sustainable development goals and UN guiding principles on business and human rights.

This exemplifies tobacco industry Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies, where tobacco companies use associations or partnerships with highly respected organisations to enhance their reputation and present themselves as good corporate citizens, despite the harms caused by tobacco products. This practice, when applied to environmental and sustainability concerns, is called “greenwashing“.

Dr. Vera da Costa e Silva, head of the WHO FCTC Secretariat, addressed this point in a July 2017 blog post, stating that:

companies have masqueraded as partners for decent and well-meaning programmes designed to improve the lot of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. And you can see what they gain: an invitation to speak to decision-makers at the highest levels, which offers an aura of respectability and feeds the narrative of responsible partnership.”14

Tobacco Companies Excluded Due To ‘Inherent Conflict of Interest’

Da Costa e Silva wasn’t alone in flagging inherent problems with tobacco company membership of initiatives like the UNGC. Over 200 organisations and leaders in 57 countries signed and sent a letter on 30 August 2017 to UNGC’s CEO and Executive Director, Lise Kingo, calling for the organisation to permanently ban tobacco industry from participation (Image 1):

”We, the undersigned, call on the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) to amend its current tobacco-related membership policy and publicly ban the participation of the tobacco…Banning the tobacco industry will help the UNGC achieve its mission of supporting responsible and sustainable strategies focused on human rights, labor, environment, and corruption…Businesses whose products are responsible for 7 million deaths globally each year present numerous conflicts of interest in carrying out the UNGC’s work…We therefore urge the UNGC to act before the September 21, 2017 triennial United Nations Global Compact Leaders Summit to publicly ban the participation of the tobacco industry from the UN Global Compact and value the lives of millions over tobacco industry profits.”15

Minutes from an UNGC Board meeting on 19 July 201716 suggests that the UNGC had decided to exclude the tobacco industry as early as July 2017 to “Align exclusionary criteria with the UN system (i.e. tobacco and controversial weapons)” and:

“ when communicating about the decision to exclude tobacco companies from participation in the UN Global Compact, it should be made clear that the decision was taken in line with the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, but not as a direct result.”

On 12 September 2017, the UNGC publicly announced that tobacco companies would be delisted from UNGC membership, effective from 15 October 2017.17
The UNGC website further stated that “the new exclusions recognize an inherent conflict of interest between these products and human rights, the right to public health, international security and peace.”18

However, the tobacco industry funded Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT) remained a member.19
For more on ECLT’s partnership with the International Labour Organization see our page (ILO)

TobaccoTactics Resources

Relevant Link

Model policy for agencies of the United Nations system on preventing tobacco industry interference

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  1. United Nations Global Compact, Global Compact Marks 10th Anniversary, Reflects on Milestones, July 2010, accessed October 2017
  2. United Nations Global Compact, UNGC: Who We Are, 2016, accessed October 2017
  3. United Nations Global Compact, UNGC: Our Mission, 2016, accessed October 2017
  4. United Nations Global Compact, Our participants, undated, accessed October 2017
  5. United Nations Global Compact, Tobacco Company Policy, undated, accessed September 2017
  6. S. Bialous, Corporate Accountability International ARTICLE 5.3 AND INTERNATIONAL TOBACCO INDUSTRY INTERFERENCE: Report commissioned by the Convention Secretariat, WHO FCTC, November 2015, accessed September 2017
  7. Global Policy Forum Europe, Whose partnership for whose development? Corporate accountability in the UN system beyond the Global Compact 2007, accessed October 2016
  8. Sourcewatch, United Nations Global Compact, 2013, accessed October 2016
  9. TRAC-Transnational Resource & Action Center, Tangled Up in Blue: Corporate Partnerships at the United Nations, 2000, accessed October 2016
  10. Philip Morris International, PMI UNGC Communication on Progress, 2015, 2016, accessed October 2017
  11. Philip Morris International, Communication on Progress, 2016, 12 September 2017, accessed October 2017
  12. United Nations Global Compact, The Communication on progress (COP) in Brief, undated, accessed October 2017
  13. A. Gallagher, K. Evans-Reeves, PMI IMPACT: Controlling research. Controlling policy?, 1 May 2017, accessed October 2017
  14. V. da Costa e Silva, Time to ban the wolves in sheep’s clothing, 11 July 2017, accessed September 2017
  15. e-activist.com,Sign on Letter: Ban the tobacco Industry from the UN Global Compact, 30 August 2017, accessed October 2017
  16. United Nations Global Compact, UNGC Board Meeting Report: 19 July 2017, 19 July 2017, accessed September 2017
  17. United Nations Global Compact, UN Global Compact Integrity Policy Update, 12 September 2017, accessed October 2017
  18. United Nations Global Compact, Who should join?, 12 September 2017, accessed October 2017
  19. United Nations, Who we are: Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT), UN Global Compact website, undated, accessed May 2019