Podcast Interview

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Today marks the launch of Measuring Up, the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development’s (UKSSD) first stock take of progress across the UK against all the 169 targets identified in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Business Fights Poverty’s Katie Hyson caught up with Dominic White, co-founder and co-chair of UK-SSD, as well as Head of International Development Policy at WWF-UK and former Chair of Bond, a network for International Development organisations in UK.

BFP: Dominic, what is your experience at the interface between tackling poverty and managing the environment?

Dominic: We all depend on the natural environment for the basics in life that we take for granted – the food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink.   But when these assets are degraded or destroyed it is often the poorest people who feel it most as they depend most directly on these resources locally.  Sadly there are so many examples of where our demand for natural resources has outstripped supply – we see it often with freshwater rivers or lakes such as the Aral Sea – dried up and with toxic residues from agriculture. 

I’ve seen communities in Tanzania where poorly planned industrial agriculture, has led to rivers running dry downstream leaving local villagers little choice but to send their daughters to collect water missing their schooling as result.  Where common resources are shared – for example, un-gazetted forests, I’ve seen that the “tragedy of the commons” where it’s a free for all and unregulated or illegal demand outstrips supply of forest food, fibres and timber. This leaves forests degraded and means local communities have to go further afield to fulfil their needs. But this is not a feature of poverty: Closer to home, stocks of North Sea cod were once one of the world’s great fisheries that came perilously close to collapse in the 2000’s due to overfishing, only now after careful management are these stocks starting to recover.

People living in poverty are most directly dependent on natural resources, for example harvesting wild foods and using locally collected building materials. But greed and the environment are linked too! All of us are connected to the natural environment – the environment is the source of raw materials for the food we eat, clothes we wear and things we buy, its just we in richer countries don’t always make the connection between our consumption and the natural world. Often those of us in developed countries have outsourced our pollution and the negative impacts of over-consumption to other countries. We often justify this as trade or development but the reality is 20% of the richest people in the world consume 80% of the world’s resources – if everyone lived like we do we’d need 3 planets to support us all. 

BFP: In your opinion, what is the role of business in tackling poverty and protecting the environment?

Dominic: A thriving company that wants to stay in business is one where there is a full understanding of the positive and negative impacts of the business on people and planet.  There is a growing awareness amongst leading businesses that there are limits to their supply chains.  Supply chains need to be managed sustainably if they want to see a steady supply of goods in the long term. 

My personal experience lies in the renewables space, which is why so many of my examples are around natural resources, but this issue is as applicable to finite resources such as minerals and metals.

Managing natural resources sustainably is better for people as well as the environment, it means that those people working in supply chains; from cotton ginners to garment workers, fishermen to canning factories will also have job security. Companies that demand the highest standards can also support decent and safe jobs.  Long term solutions to eradicating poverty are nearly always dependent on a healthy environment.  WWF works to manage renewable resources sustainably and for the long term so they can keep producing resources and associated livelihoods in perpetuity. 

The recent focus on plastics has demonstrated the negative impacts that pollution has on the natural environment and on people, and businesses have a role in reducing pollution throughout the value chain all the way to what the end consumer does with the packaging or waste from a product.

The broader message is that business needs to take full responsibility, from cradle to grave, which includes a responsibility to its consumers and the choices they make – be that what, how or when they consume and the impacts associated with this. Of course some companies will want a quick buck and will not manage their supply chains and pollution impacts sustainably – that’s more difficult to control.

BFP: How can business, policy makers and NGOs better work together for a shared sustainable future?

Dominic: Everyone has a role in delivering a sustainable future. Businesses have a role in ensuring their supply chains and products have positive and not negative impacts on producers and the environment, and take into account the materials used, energy use, pollution issues including plastics, impacts on water use and other natural resources. For example, food producers that use Palm Oil or Soy need to know where these ingredients come from and that they are guaranteed not to be causing deforestation.

For Policy makers there is a critical role in legislation, and setting the “rules of the game” to incentivise sustainable behaviour. Many progressive businesses that go the extra mile call for a level playing field so that laggards don’t gain advantage from not investing long term. 

Facilitating dialogue, engaging the public, scrutinising government and corporate commitments and bringing new ideas to the table are all important roles for NGOs. The key is for different stakeholders to understand each other and work collaboratively towards a common goal – what the SDGs gives us is that shared purpose for all of us to work towards.

BFP: Tell us more about UKSSD and the report you are launching?

Dominic: I co-founded UKSSD to help drive action towards a sustainable UK.  I believe it is critical that the UK demonstrates global leadership by getting our own house in order first before preaching to other countries.  The universal nature of the SDGs provides a fantastic opportunity for us to do this.  UKSSD is open to everyone – it is a truly multi-stakeholder network, with shared purpose to make the UK sustainable. 

UK consumers and businesses have a clear responsibility for their impacts, be they in their domestic location or where and how their products are made or disposed of.

Measuring Up is a result of a huge effort made by many organisations and individuals who volunteered their time to “do their bit” towards this aim.  The report is a stock take of progress across the UK against all the 169 SDG targets.  While the government is busy dealing with Brexit, we’ve been busy preparing this as a contribution to help the UK identify where we can all focus our efforts to enhance sustainable development at home. It is a mirror for the country to reflect on.

BFP: What is the change you are hoping the UKSSD and the report will create?

Dominic: We want this report to galvanise more action.  Ideally we’d like to see government recognise the SDGs as a fantastic post-Brexit opportunity, a new unifying vision that inspires all people.  We’d like to see stronger government leadership on SDGs but with or without this we want to inspire anyone who shares our purpose to get together and take action where they can.

BFP: For the Business Fights Poverty network, what is your call to action?

Dominic: The SDGs are a powerful and transformative agenda and if we manage to deliver them we will have a world that is free from poverty, where inequality is reduced, where climate change is tackled, where production and consumption are sustainable and the natural world is able to support us now and into the future.  We all have a role in making the SDGs a reality; businesses should look across their supply chains and products and think about how they relate to each of the 17 goals – are they supporting delivery of that goal? Or are your business activities making some goals and targets worse? Hardwire the SDGs and sustainable development into your business operations – if you get stuck find some like-minded folk to share the challenge – find some less obvious partners to work with! 

BFP: Business Fights Poverty is all about collaboration and learning. Would you mind sharing a little more about yourself?

What does your day to day role look like? 

Dominic: I work as part of a small (but perfectly formed) team engaging with governments and business to mainstream environment into development. We work closely with other organisations to champion sustainable development. A particular focus is supporting and promoting the uptake of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we recognise that if this ground-breaking set of goals and targets is taken up by governments and businesses around the world then we will go a long way towards achieving a sustainable future for everyone. The work we do is varied, we might be meeting with government officials, preparing briefings, writing evidence for parliamentary inquiries, speaking at events or working with partners on our plans and strategies.

BFP: Who inspires you? 

Dominic: People like Gro Harlem Brundtland, mother of sustainable development since 1987; Paula Caballero, mother of SDGs and Kate Raworth, mother of doughnuts – I mean Doughnut Economics.  Visionary women who hold the big picture and aren’t afraid of addressing complex interactions between people and nature to provide a better future.

BFP: How do you stay motivated?

Dominic: By focusing on the potential for change in the work that I do, the environmental and social challenges we are facing at this point in history are huge and daunting, my day job is to try and do something about it!

BFP: What does personal success look like for you?

Dominic: When I see individuals or organisations taking up my ideas so that they’re not my ideas anymore and joining the fight for a more sustainable world.

BFP: What advice would you give to someone just starting out on their career?

Dominic: We all share common challenges already.  Look at the connections in your work to other social, economic and environmental issues and see how you can leverage greater impact from thinking through your work more broadly – more sustainably.  Whatever sector you are in – private, public or third sector – you have an opportunity to make life better for other people beyond your job itself.

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