SDG immersion: Breaking down barriers for business

By Amanda Powell-Smith

Originally appeared on July 2018.

Four days at the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is undoubtedly an immersion process. It’s also a good way to gain perspective – I learnt as much by the things that weren’t said as those that were.

For all the leadership talk about “three years in, it’s time to focus on action”, the scale of the SDG Business Forum makes it hard to move beyond high-level conversation and really dig into the question of how to move the SDG agenda forwards. Like many big forum events, the most detailed discussions took place in the side rooms and the corridors; the coffee shops and the cafes.

Businesses across the world are harnessing their energy, resources and ideas to make an impact – but more is urgently needed. More businesses must get involved, more collaboration is required, more sharing of what doesn’t work as well as what does, and more commitment to the true ethos of sustainability, rather than just the Goals that suit.

So, in the interest of driving action, here are my top five observations from the events in New York on how to break down the SDG barriers for business.

1) The SDGs need to be recognised as a merket-led agenda, not a development agenda:

“The private sector is not a piggy bank for the SDGs. ” John Denton, Secretary General of the International Chambers of Commerce gave the quote of the conference before calling for investment support to be unlocked to help businesses drive sustainable solutions. Market-led solutions are key, not just to enable funding to support innovation and scaling, but also to gain consistent support from company boards and embed the notion of sustainability at the heart of the business.

2) Customer value is key to driving business involvement:

Despite multiple surveys saying otherwise, the reality is that most businesses are not aware of the SDGs or, even if they are, do not understand their relevance. We can celebrate the fact that 13,000 businesses have signed up to the UN Global Compact – and then realise that 43,000 businesses are members of the International Chambers of Commerce. The only way that the SDGs will be achieved is if they are seen as business critical and that means focusing on the things that matter to that organisation – their customers. The quickest way to achieving the SDGs will be through supply chains and end consumers.

3) Start, succeed and build (how do you eat an elephant?):

It’s easy to become SDG obsessed and forget how big, complicated and off-putting they are for many business leaders, let alone consumers.  Optimism is key, and this can be achieved by applying a campaign approach to achieving specific aspects of a target – not attempting all 17 Goals at once – and then celebrating key milestones. WBCSD’s WASH at the Workplace Pledge has been signed by multiple businesses of all sizes and is directly helping to ensure employees across the world have access to water and sanitation facilities while saving businesses money in terms of reduced absence, higher productivity and improved staff loyalty. For some organisations – who through the pledge have realised they didn’t have any bathroom facilities for women – this has also started a wider programme around increasing gender equality which both impacts different SDG targets and increases their access to a greater talent pool.  Success on initial pledges are more likely to lead to on-going involvement and motivation to tackle other targets.

4) The SDGs need to go local:

We do not need another huge umbrella organisation to drive SDG take up – there are already too many for everyone to keep track of. The SDGs need to go to the businesses and while they are becoming established on a global stage, for example via the World Economic Forum and International Chambers of Commerce, they are not yet translating down to local trade associations and city-based business associations. If we want mass participation, it has to be made easy not exclusive. Local action and small business involvement is key.

5) Social business models should be actively encouraged by investors and regulators:

Innovation and start-ups are seen as key to finding solutions to support SDG achievement and it was disappointing there was not more discussion around the value of social purpose business models – such as social enterprises or B Corporations – as a route to building towards this. The SDGs framework requires a sustainability mindset where the implication of all business decisions are considered from a 360-degree perspective. Businesses founded on the basis of combining profit and purpose are automatically a step forward towards achieving the SDGs and more likely to avoid the dangers of ‘cherry picking’ some Goals while doing damage in others. Social business models need to become the norm.

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