Looking back, and then ahead for the Global Goals
The Pope has gone home, the media has moved on and New York City’s traffic is as normal as it will ever be. Four weeks following the announcement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is time to reflect on what their launch brought to the sustainability field and then look at what might come.
Perhaps more surprising than anything is the level of engagement we saw (and in many ways, continue to see) from business. While the announcement of the Global Goals, which was conveniently placed in the middle of New York’s Climate Week, provided a media goldmine that was hard for PR hacks to ignore, the strong level of support from business was both unexpected and powerful.
What we learned
On 28 September, Salterbaxter hosted an intimate roundtable discussion in New York City with approximately 30 sustainable business leaders to discuss the considerations and actions businesses can take with the new global goals.
With insights from BNY Mellon, Credit Suisse, Pfizer and Thomson Reuters, here are eight key insights we gathered from the discussion:
- All aboard: Despite long-standing scepticism, the level of interest, enthusiasm and support for the SDGs from the business community was unprecedented and marked an important milestone for the international development agenda. The United Nations Private Sector Forum on 26 September, which drew nearly 200 business leaders, demonstrated just how committed some companies are to turning the world’s biggest challenges into business opportunities.
- Use your smarts:Perhaps the greatest opportunity,real wins will come when smart businesses identify ways to link the goals. Most of the SDG targets can’t be achieved without others. From infrastructure (Goal 6) needing the rule of law (Goal 16) to poverty (Goal 1) needing energy (Goal 7), sustainability has shown us how an integrated approach is necessary for real solutions.
- Global to Local: There is a tendency to get trapped in a ‘global’ mindset with the SDGs and focus solely on the macro level. However, one of the most distinguishing factors of the SDGs is their relevancy to all countries and all markets. Companies large and small can contribute to nearly all 17 of the SDGs through local action.
- Translating sustainability: At a minimum, and probably most usefully, the Global Goals can serve as a language tool for businesses, governments and NGOs to communicate sustainability in a consistent and uniform way.
- A new era for corporate philanthropy?: With the rise of strategic corporate responsibility, philanthropy has taken a backseat and has even received a bit of flak for its disconnect to core business. However, the SDGs might breathe new life into corporate giving. Philanthropy dollars are an excellent way to drive change by setting clear parameters for giving that enable social progress. Morgan Stanley’s Parity Portfolio, Timberland’s farming project and Thomson Reuters Foundation’s SDG media trainings are excellent examples.
- Next Stop, COP21: While hesitations for full engagement remain, we found most people agreeing that the momentum built by the SDGs would certainly help in driving action at COP21 in Paris in December. With the SDGs based on science, it appears that the messages around Climate Change action are finally lining up.
- Show me the money: While you can still hear grumblings from some NGOs, the SDGs finally recognise the importance for businesses to see a return on their investments. Global challenges and business opportunities are no longer strictly at odds.
- To each, their own: Finally, there is no one way to approach or adapt the SDGs to a corporate sustainability strategy. Businesses will need to find the approach (if any) that works best for them. For some it may mean an entirely new strategy, and for others it might be used to communicate sustainability to employees. The opportunities are wide and varied.
What we have
It wouldn’t be a sustainability milestone if we didn’t have another tool to show for it (as if sustainability professionals needed another framework or tool). Some of the new resources now available include GRI’s SDG Compass; SDG industry matrices from KPMG; the 12.6 Live Tracker; and Oxfam’s Poverty Footprint.
While not a surefire recipe for success, collectively these factors make a compelling case for the SDGs with evidence to support. The weeks following the launch have revealed how businesses are using the Global Goals to think strategically and creatively to drive sustainability. From supporting Syrian refugees to mapping air quality for consumers and raising awareness through imagination, companies are showing just how impactful business ingenuity can be for the development agenda. Furthermore, several businesses have already embedded the SDGs into core business. Novozymes (a Salterbaxter client) use them as a driver for the business strategy to the extent that senior management remuneration is linked to delivery of the goals. While Novozymes might be the most ambitious example to date, companies such as Mars, Pearson, and Novo Nordisk are taking strategic approaches as well.
What we can expect
While the buzz around the SDGs has quieted in the past four weeks with some wondering if it was just a well-orchestrated media bonanza.
The truth is, companies are still reticent. While the ambitious are bulldozing ahead, many are cautiously standing by, believing January, when the goals are in effect and the outcomes of COP21 have been revealed, will be more telling. At the moment, many companies are focusing on identifying the goals most material to their strategy and planning how to communicate them (expect lots of SDG references in 2015/2016 CR and sustainability reports). However, the degree to which companies effectively integrate the Global Goals into their sustainability communications, as opposed to paying lip service, remains to be seen.
The SDGs needn’t change the way a business approaches sustainability. It can, but it doesn’t have to. The goals should serve as a guidepost to validate existing activity, advance the conversation internally, incite innovation and ultimately help companies communicate the relevancy of their efforts within the global context. In other words, businesses might finally find a way to articulate their value to society, which is reason enough not to overlook the opportunity.