What prize awaits Businesses that Embrace the Sustainable Development Goals?

By Sue Adkins, International Director, Business in the Community

What prize awaits Businesses that Embrace the Sustainable Development Goals?

By Sue Adkins, International Director, Business in the Community

As the Business Sustainable Development Commission launches its report Better Business, Better World as the World Economic Forum in Davos, marking the first anniversary of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Sue Adkins, International Director at BITC looks at how businesses are embracing the SDGs.

The UN SDGs, also known as the Global Goals, are based on the principle of leaving no one behind, and aim to tackle global poverty, climate change and inequality. With 17 goals and 169 targets to be achieved by 2030, these Goals represent the largest ever call for collective action by governments, insitutions, businesses and citizens.

But people are being left behind, and new models must be developed with their bases in sustainability if society is to renew business’ licence to operate. In 2016 there was huge political, environmental and social upheaval. The refugee crisis caused the largest movement of people since the Second World War. Conflicts in the Middle East caused political tension, while the rise of populism threw political forecasts into disarray. The effect that transition into the digital age will have on employment and on sustainability came into sharp highlight.

To achieve the Goals and so a sustainable future of all, it is essential to develop the positive and mitigate the negative impacts of business. The economic contribution business makes is clear, but now the dialogue is moving on to look at how profits are made.

As well as being taxpayers, businesses are innovators, helping to meet the evolving needs of their customers and tackle market challenges. They are employers, helping staff to live healthy, prosperous and productive lives. They are neighbours, investing in the welfare of the communities they operate in and from which they draw resources, including playing an active role in reducing resource use. The symbiotic link between business success and achieving the Global Goals is irrefutable.

We have seen through our work on sustainable business models that companies are increasingly embracing the sustainability agenda and the SDGS – as can be seen in our films from business leaders on sustainable business models. But, particularly against the backdrop of 2016, it’s clear that there is still much to be done and many more to engage.

Today saw the launch, at Davos, of the Business Sustainable Development Commision’s Report, Better Business Better World. The report makes it clear that business as usual is not good enough, stating that; “Business leaders need to strike out in new directions to embrace more sustainable and inclusive economic models.” These models, it says, are required urgently, and need to address poverty, inequality, environmental and social sustainability.

With the SDGS as a framework, the report re-emphasises the economic case for action and reinforces the importance of responsive and responsible business leadership. It stresses the need to rebuild trust, the power of collaboration and the potential benefits and prosperity for all that will come from building a sustainable future.

Specifically, it identifies 60 of the biggest market opportunities in the future, valued at over $12 trillion and which will create millions of jobs, as based on addressing the SDGs. Encouragingly, the report also describes how future-focused businesses are addressing this agenda. These businesses are moving in steps from improving today’s products and services through to readying for and shaping new business models. In the report the Commission identified 32 “Unicorns”; companies that are developing SDG related markets, worth as much as $1 billion.

Of course, it’s not just the Unicorns or other disruptors that are or will be acting on the SDGs. Many well established businesses are also progressing the SDGs through their products and operations. One example is Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, running since 2010. The company’s achievements through the Plan include:

– Helping 480 million people to improve their health and hygiene

– Enabling 2.4 million smallholder farmers to access initiatives aimed at improving agricultural practices and increase scale

– Reduced CO2 emissions and water use since 2008.

These activities accounted for nearly half of Unilever’s growth in 2015, growing faster than the rest of the business. The company also reports that it has seen reduced costs and risks across their operations and an increase in trust among their multiple stakeholders.1

Unilever’s evidence helps show the positive business impact of adopting a sustainability approach. And with purposeful businesses outperforming the stock market by 133%2, there is powerful evidence of the business case.

Yet businesses can do more. Time is ticking away, and it is vital that the pace of change is accelerated.

How can your business help? Share your story.

Sharing your story of sustainability and social gains brings benefits to your business, the communities and the environments it works with and within. Importantly, it also draws attention to the issues, and inspires others to take action. We invite and encourage all businesses anywhere that are embracing the SDGs to enter our Awards and so inspire a much wider audience.

Enter the Unilever Global Development Award, supported by Business Fights Poverty – recognising and celebrating companies having an impact on one or more of the SDGs.

Enter the UPS International Disaster Relief and Resilience Award, supported by DFID – recognising and celebrating companies that respond and build resilience to disasters around the world.

And don’t forget to join us at our webinar, Beyond Davos: Responsive and Responsible Leadership, on 6 February, chaired by Keith Weed and featuring contributions from Lord Malloch Brown Chairman of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission and Yasmin Diamond, Executive Vice President Global Corporate Affairs, IHG.

Editor’s Note:

This article first appeared on Business in the Community and is reproduced with permission.


1. Unilever Sustainable Living Plan: Summary of Progress 2015

2. The Meaningful Brands report 2015, Hava Media

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