The loo with an integrated handbasin which drains into the cistern; the fifty-page guide to recycling and rubbish disposal; the tiny boxes you can put your leftover food into at a café; the handbag size hand towel you take with you to use in public loos… I saw a lot of things in Japan which we could usefully adopt in the UK.
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?
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.
- Part one - introduction, Goals 1 and 5: poverty and gender, in The Environmentalist or on my blog.
- Part two - Goals 2, 3 and 4: hunger, health and well-being, education, in The Environmentalist or on my blog.
- Part three - Goals 6, 12 and 14: clean water, life below water and responsible production and consumption, in The Environmentalist or on my blog.
- Part four - Goals 13 and 15: climate change and life on land, in The Environmentalist or on my blog.
- Part five - Goals 7 and 11: cleaner energy and sustainable cities, in The Environmentalist or on my blog.
- Part six - Goals 8, 9 and 10: work, equality, innovation and growth, in The Environmentalist or on my blog.
Stonewall and P&G's work to promote equality for LGBT staff in Spain, Rype Office's repurposed office furniture for Public Health Wales, Willmott Dixon Interiors working with the Amber Foundation to help vulnerable youngsters into work... These are just some of the businesses featured in part six of my seven part series for The Environmentalist on how business can help support the SDGs.
Credit: Nicki Priem. Mafikizolo raised a flag to represent Goal 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, South Africa, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
If that all sounds like too many clicks, there's a pdf of it here.
Bringing affordable off-grid renewables to remote communities in developing countries; using cutting-edge data analysis to save money and carbon in modern buildings; micro-managing students' energy use to balance the national grid: some of the brilliant things that are featured in the latest of my series on how businesses are helping contribute to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.
This article in The Environmentalist also looks at making cities more sustainable: better buildings, convenient and reliable public transport and new technology which helps blind and partially sighted people navigate and enjoy the neighbourhood.
In the fourth of my series on business and the Sustainable Development Goals, I found out about how Nestle and Mondelez are working to secure their long-term supply of cocoa, about how companies are calling for greater action on carbon emissions and how the pension fund of England's environment regulator is divesting from fossil fuels. This part of the series looks at Goal 13 Climate Action and Goal 15 Life on Land.
In the third of my series on what business can do to support the Sustainable Development Goals, published in The Environmentalist, I look at goals 6 clean water and sanitation; 14 life below water and 12 responsible consumption and production.
I found lots of interesting action - most of which predates the SDGs - and was able to squeeze in impressive strides in reducing water use by Levi Strauss, Maersk Group starting to shift the entire ship breaking sector through its work in India and some head-to-head competition between Tesco and Sainsbury's on reducing food waste. And much more...
Business can help society meet the Sustainable Development Goals (aka Global Goals). Find out more about work on hunger, health and quality education.
Thanks to the lovely people at IEMA's The Environmentalist magazine, for the invitation to write this series on business response to the SDGs. It's given me a reason to talk to lots of people doing important work inside lots of businesses and NGOs.
The second article is now out (May 2016), and it covers goals 2, 3 and 4:
You can access the article, and plenty of other environmental news, here, either sign in with your IEMA login, subscribe or take a free trial.
Sustainability types were discussing the Sustainable Development Goals (aka Global Goals) in London last night, at a regular meeting of The Crowd. If you are twitter-enabled, you can search for the #crowdforum tweets to follow that way.
I've got very interested in the SDGs, since being asked to write a series of articles about how business is responding, for The Environmentalist.
There was some great conversation, and I was particularly struck by Claire Melamed's view that businesses can cherry pick (or have strategic priorities) among the SDGs, as long as a business doesn't actively undermine any of the goals or targets. That seems a pretty clear minimum ask!
How would you tell if a goal is being actively undermined?
So how would you tell? Perhaps the easiest is to do an audit-style check against all 169 of the targets, and spot the krill oil which is staining the otherwise spotless business practices. Some will be easier to test than others, so the views of stakeholders will probably be useful in helping see the business's practices from a variety of angles.
What are the sanctions and disincentives?
The people who spoke about this seemed to be relying on good old fashioned campaigns to bring the undermining to public attention and turn it into a business issue for the company concerned. Which seems pretty familiar to me. One person used the Greenpeace campaign against the use of unsustainable palm oil by Nestle's Kit Kat as an example. And that campaign was way back in 2010. Friends of the Earth was launched in the UK with a mass bottle dump outside Schweppes headquarters, which became a well-known photo at the time. Social media ensures that campaigns like this can become viral in a few hours. But in essence they are nothing new.
Another person said "you'd have to be not in your right mind, to actively undermine any of these goals." And perhaps she's right. But it's clear that either lots of people haven't been in their right minds, or perhaps it's been perfectly rational to undermine social and ecological life support systems, because we are here and here isn't a great place for many of the critical issues highlighted by the global goals. Once again I find myself wobbling between irrational optimism and chronic unease.
But let's give this optimist the benefit of the doubt, and assume that it is now rational to avoid actively undermining the goals.
The claim was made, with some strength of feeling, that COP21's agreement in Paris has made a tangible difference, with analysts using climate and fossil fuel exposure to make investment recommendations. And there seemed to be general agreement in the room that this was new and significant. And today, two days after the Crowd forum event, comes the news that Peabody Energy (the world's biggest privately-owned coal producer) has filed for bankruptcy. So that's one of the 17 goals accounted for.
Other voices suggested that the 17 goals will set a broad context for action by policy makers and government, helping business decision-makers have more certainty about what the future holds and therefore being more confident to invest in goal-friendly products, services and ways of doing business. On the other hand, people noticed the apparent disconnect between the UK Government's pledges in Paris, and its action to undermine renewables and energy efficiency, and support fossil fuel extraction, in the subsequent budget and policy decisions.
Another change was the rise of the millenials, who make up increasing proportions of the workforce, electorate and buying public. Their commitment to values was seen as a reason for optimism, although there was also a recognition that we can't wait for them to clear up our mess. (As someone who still clears up her own millenial children's mess, while said young people are jetting off and buying fast fashion off the interwebs, I am perhaps a little cynical about how values translate into action for this generation.)
And the final bid for what's changed, is the recognition and willingness of players to collaborate in order to create system-level change. And the good news on this is that there is a lot of practical understanding being shared about how to make collaboration work (Working Collaboratively is just one contribution to this), and specialist organisations to help.
So has there been a tipping point?
Lots of people were insisting to me that there has. There were few negative voices. In fact, some contributors said they were bored and in danger of falling asleep, such was the level of agreement in the room. I was left with the impression that we're getting close to a critical mass of business leaders wanting to do the right thing, and they need support and pressure from the rest of us to make it in their short-term interests to do so.
So is it back to the placards, or sticking with the post-it notes?
In September 2015, the United Nations agreed a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Covering everything from gender equality to the ecology of the deep oceans, they form a comprehensive description of the key challenges we face in making sustainable development a reality.
The UN sees businesses as a key player in meeting the goals. Why should business bother? And where do you start?
I'm writing a series of articles for The Environmentalist exploring these questions, and the first one is out today (11th February). It introduces the goals, and looks in detail at Goal 1 End poverty in all its forms everywhere and Goal 5 Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
You can access the article, and plenty of other environmental news, here, either sign in with your IEMA login, subscribe or take a free trial.
Alternatively, there's a pdf of it here.