On 25 September 2015, at the United Nations General Assembly over 150 world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); all 17 of them, with 169 sub-targets to be achieved by 2030. They cover most of the laudable aims that any sensible person who wants our society to thrive and survive on this planet for the longer term would want to see achieved including:
- eradication of poverty, hunger, gender inequality;
- access for all to education, clean water, sanitation and healthy wellbeing;
- action to combat climate change; and,
- preservation of our natural ecosystems.
The SDGs are aimed at all stakeholders in society: governments, civil society and businesses both large and small.
The day after the adoption, the UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-moon, addressed the Private Sector Forum when he stated as follows:
“Governments must take the lead in living up to their pledges. At the same time, I am counting on the private sector to drive success. Now is the time to mobilise the global business community as never before. The case is clear. Realising the Sustainable Development Goals will improve the environment for doing business and building markets. Trillions of dollars in public and private funds are to be redirected towards the SDGs, creating huge opportunities for responsible companies to deliver solutions.”
However, this call to arms for business seems to have led to a “slow-burn” reaction. The SDGs are written at a very high level and not specifically targeted at business, ie there is no clear guidance on how the SDGs can be achieved with help from business. Any business which happens to be interested in the SDGs must work it out for themselves.
To that end, it could be said that the most the SDGs have done for business is to provide the touchlines of a playing field on which all business should be operating. In the absence of governments legislating in these areas, these are a helpful addition to the theme of how businesses can act more responsibly.
But as anyone in business knows, there needs to be more than a social and/or moral reason for business behavioural change; there needs to be a good economic reason. After all, a business that doesn’t make a profit is not a sustainable business.
More and more studies are showing that where businesses have the right culture and behave responsibly their values are positively impacted. As reported in the Sunday Times on 28 August 2016, “companies rated as the best to work for outperform their peers by 2% – 3% a year, when judged by their share prices in the long run. High scores for other intangibles such as customer satisfaction and environmental responsibility also seem to be linked to strong share price performance.”
So where the SDGs fall short is the making of the economic case for action. Of course, Ban Ki Moon said companies can deliver solutions (and thereby make profits) in helping the SDGs be achieved. However, it is more than just about delivering solutions. For companies to help the UN in achieving their SDG objectives, they should come down from the high level of the SDGs and work out how by being a good corporate citizen and meeting customer expectations they can enhance their value, reputation and profitability. Companies can do this in four steps:
- by understanding the risks to people and the planet that their business models and value-chains could cause;
- by designing and implementing policy and procedure change to address those risks;
- by monitoring their performance to ensure their effectiveness and that they are delivering true value to themselves and wider society; and, finally,
- by reporting on their progress, the challenges they face and their achievements.
They say that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time; if every company were to look in the mirror and consider how they could be more profitable through responsible behaviour, the SDGs may stand a chance of success.