The business case for SDGs and what’s needed to achieve them

The business case for SDGs and what’s needed to achieve them

Launched with much fanfare in September 2015, The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), set the agenda for ‘transforming our world by 2030’. With 17 overarching goals, from ending poverty in all forms to ensuring access to clean energy for all, their scope is broad and long-term. That’s why some argue that they shouldn’t be called SDGs, but rather the Global Goals, as its everyone’s business.

The global goals offer a rare opportunity to create a system change. They bring together the three main actors – government, business and the third sector – around a set of values that matter most to the world. It is the involvement of business that is most challenging, and it may be that the business response determines whether the global goals achieve their objective of transforming the world.

The pessimists argue that, in their current form, the goals are too intangible for business. They are another vague and unachievable set of words to add to a corporate sustainability plan. They are competing for airtime against frameworks that are emerging from the business community such as natural capital, and social impact measurement.

There are some who feel that the delivery has fallen to business because international institutions have failed.

But as we found at our Crowd Forum on 11th April, there is a general consensus that the global goals are good for business.

Some companies are working on the risks and opportunities.

Aviva says they are divesting from fossil fuels and investing in renewables to help avoid what its chief executive, Mark Wilson, says are “eye-watering” financial risks. Aviva is just one of many, including the Rockefeller Foundation, who joins the trend of fossil fuel divestment as a means of securing future growth.

A recent Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management study (the biggest to the date) echoes joint Harvard and London Business Schools’ papers that show a positive correlation between corporate financial performance (CFP) and environmental and social governance (ESG).

The primary opportunity that the global goals present is the potential to connect a model of financial return with society’s biggest challenges. Business is no longer asked to donate to the cause, but rather invest for an anticipated return. The returns come in the form of economic and social gains. This is a unique opportunity to create a system change by using effective market mechanisms.

The second major opportunity is innovation. I’m not going to preach for the likes of Patagonia, Unilever and Interface. It’s a common sense that having a purpose beyond profit coupled with hunger for innovation has brought them great rewards.

The third opportunity I’d mention is increased employee engagement and talent retention. Motivated and dedicated colleagues is the main asset of any business and a growth engine.

Whilst acknowledging that there is a clear business case for the global goals, I wonder what do we need to make them a reality?

The biggest challenge indeed lies on the implementation stage. There is a lot of tension – on one hand, there is a desire to make goals non prescriptive and give companies creative license in how they interpret their approach to them. Business however operates best if there is a clear framework.

Such circumstances mean that the recently-formed Business and Sustainable Development Commission is to play a pivotal role in navigating the tension between offering the necessary guidance and providing the flexibility and space for businesses to find their own way to commercialise the goals. It may be directing that strain; the goals succeed or fail for business.

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