Peace, justice, partnerships and a strategic approach - 7/7 on business and the Sustainable Development Goals

Photo: Flags and goals, Liu Bolin. For more SDG images see the UN's media centre.

Photo: Flags and goals, Liu Bolin. For more SDG images see the UN's media centre.

Now that the Sustainable Development Goals (Global Goals) have had a chance to bed down, how are companies responding to them?  And what about the rather nebulous enabling goals 16 and 17 on peace, justice, strong institutions and partnership: how can businesses translate these into action? 

The seventh and final piece in my series on the SDGs, written for The Environmentalist magazine, is out now.  See it on their website here, or read the pdf version.

What makes a great partnership?

This series has featured many collaborations and partnerships.  Some, like the UN Global Compact, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development or the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development network, are for business and other players across the sustainability spectrum.  Others focus on specific issues or sectors, like the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, the Corporate Leaders Group (which is about climate change) and the C40 network of cities.

This kind of joint working can be disappointing, if clear shared goals and skilful convening are lacking. 

It’s also important to understand that there is a spectrum of collaborative working, from sharing information, coordination and cooperation through one-off collaborative projects and mainstream work delivered jointly right up to collaboration being the new business-as-usual.  Potential collaborators need to listen to each other’s assumptions about how they expect to work together, as well as what they want to achieve.

This spectrum, and other useful frameworks and tips, are explored in my book “Working Collaboratively: a practical guide to achieving more”. 

Strategic responses to the goals as a whole

In exploring what businesses are doing to respond the Sustainable Development Goals as a whole, I have found different approaches being used.

Some, like Acciona the Spanish renewables and infrastructure company, are using them to focus their corporate volunteering.

Cemex, BT and Samsung are among companies which are highlighting links to specific goals in their sustainability reporting.  GRI has mapped the SDGs against its reporting frameworks.

Many are using the SDGs to augment their materiality analysis.  Global consultancy firm PwC has developed a sophisticated and detailed tool which helps clients take their first steps in engaging with the goals.  Louise Scott who helped develop the Navigator tool, said

“Our detailed country-by-country research has helped companies spot things they didn’t realise were important, and catalysed conversations, grounded in geography, about where they can have the most impact.”

Novozymes is using the SDGs as part of filtering and prioritising in its innovation pipeline.  The company has gone further, linking its Executive Leadership Team’s bonus scheme to annual operational targets, derived in part from the SDGs.

Make some noise

DNV GL, the Norwegian-based multi-service assurance, standards and advisory business, is among those business services suppliers who are making some noise about the SDGs.  Bjørn Haugland is their Chief Sustainability Officer, and through his substantial twitter following and DNV’s publications he is spreading the word to businesses and helping shape the business response.

Influencing government action

Business has a powerful voice and can choose to use it to support, or undermine, robust government action in favour of sustainable development.  This is particularly important when it comes to policy coherence, which is targeted in Goal 17.

BT is part of the We Mean Business coalition – thousands of influential businesses and business groups working to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.  Over 120 coalition member companies have signed up to a commitment to responsible corporate engagement on climate change, promising to audit their activity, ensuring consistency and disclosing positions, actions and outcomes.

Across the suite of SDGs, Steve Kenzie Executive Director of the UN Global Compact in the UK, thinks companies should be “holding the Government’s feet to the fire”.

First, do no harm

Expert after expert told me that companies need to look hardest at where they may be – albeit inadvertently – undermining the SDGs.  Ruth Mhlanga, Oxfam’s Private Sector Policy Advisor, stressed

“It’s not just about opportunities, it’s also about responsible conduct and impact.  Don’t undermine one goal while tackling another.  Sustainability leaders will include those who support government efforts to govern for the common good and are willing to stand up to peers who undermine those collective efforts.” 

Collaborate to shift the system

Picking off the goals and targets which seem easiest could be a mistaken strategy, if the actions you take involve trading off progress on one front with undermining it on another.  In its research into the interconnections between the SDGs, The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) highlights an area ripe with what it calls ‘wicked trade-offs’: environmental protection versus reducing food prices.  IIASA found that the most effective win-win would be to reduce the proportion of meat in Western diets.

Oxfam’s Mhlanga also advocates collaborative, system-level action. 

“On issues like freedom of association, single companies can’t fix the problem alone.  Oxfam’s work on labour rights in Vietnam, for example, illustrated that unilateral action is insufficient because the issues are systemic across an industry.  But where companies, governments and civil society work together, making issues like suppliers paying a living wage precompetitive, then no one company is disadvantaged by competitors undercutting.”  

The Business and Sustainable Development Commission’s report "Better Business, Better World" was clear on the need for system-level change:

“ ‘Business as usual’ will not achieve this market transformation. Nor will disruptive innovation by a few sustainable pioneers be enough to drive the shift: the whole sector has to move. Forward-looking business leaders are working with sector peers and stakeholders to map their collective route to a sustainable competitive playing field.”

Stephanie Draper is Forum for the Future’s Deputy Chief Executive.  Looking at progress since the SDGs were announced, Draper said

“Successfully delivering the SDGs requires a really strong systems approach.  That means operating on three levels – joining up with others’ efforts to achieve individual goals; looking at the inter-relationships between all the goals, and delivering the goals in a way that models the characteristics we need for a sustainable society.”

Which brings us back to Goals 16 and 17, with their call for inclusion, participation and collaboration.

‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

We need to go far. And we need to go quickly. So we’d better figure out how we’re going to do both.

Seven and out

You can read the series on The Environmentalist's website (IEMA login, subscription or free trial) or on my blog.