International businesses throw weight behind Sustainable Development Goals

Businesses from around the world have thrown their weight behind the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals this week, backing a report outlining the economic benefits achieving them could bring and calling on governments to work with them to help reach the global targets.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 separate but intertwining goals adopted by the UN in 2015 to create a more sustainable world that allows each of its inhabitants to have the opportunity to live a prosperous life.

International businesses throw weight behind Sustainable Development GoalsEach of the goals, which focus on issues from climate change, inequality and poverty to responsible consumption and production and sustainable communities, has a number of specific targets to be achieved by 2030.

Among these are goals to halve per capita global food waste, upgrade infrastructure and retrofit industries to increase resource-use efficiency and reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities.

This week, as figures from the business world head to the World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland, a report has been published setting out the vast economic benefits possible through developing sustainable business models around the goals, while in the UK a group of companies have pledged to help the government meet its goals as long as it shows a similar commitment.

‘Enormous opportunities’

The Business & Sustainable Development Commission, a group of leaders from the business, finance, civil society worlds and international organisations that was formed at last year’s World Economic Forum, has revealed research stating that sustainable business models could open up economic opportunities worth $12 trillion (£9.8 trillion) and create up to 380 million jobs by 2030.

The ‘Better Business, Better World’ report says that recent decades have ‘lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty’, but also led to ‘unequal growth, increasing job insecurity, ever more debt and ever greater environmental risks’.

It points to the SDGs as the heart of a movement to build a sustainable market economy and argues that the 17 objectives can provide the private sector with a ‘new growth strategy that opens valuable market opportunities while creating a world that is both sustainable and inclusive’.

“At a time when our economic model is pushing the limits of our planetary boundaries and condemning many to a future without hope, the Sustainable Development Goals offer us a way out”, said Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, and a commissioner of the group.

“Many are now realising the enormous opportunities that exist for enlightened businesses willing to stand up and address these urgent challenges. But every day that passes is another lost opportunity for action. We must react quickly, decisively and collectively to ensure a fairer and more prosperous world for all.”

Sustainable growth ‘makes good business sense’

The report outlines 60 sustainable and inclusive market ‘hotspots’ in four key economic areas that could create ‘at least’ £9.8 trillion, worth over 10 per cent of the global gross domestic product (GDP): Energy (worth £3.5 trillion); Cities: (£3.0 trillion); Food & Agriculture (£1.8 trillion); Health & Well-being (£1.4 trillion).

These ‘Global Goals hotspots’ have the potential to grow two to three times faster than average GDP over the next 10-15 years, according to the report. Beyond the £9.8 trillion directly estimated, conservative analysis shows potential for an additional £6.5 trillion of value creation across the wider economy if companies embed the Global Goals in their strategies.

The report also shows that factoring in the cost of externalities (negative impacts from business activities such as carbon emissions or pollution) increases the overall value of opportunities by almost 40 per cent.

“We are on the edge and business as usual will drive more political opposition and land us with an economy that simply doesn’t work for enough people. We have to switch tracks to a business model that works for a new kind of inclusive growth”, said Mark Malloch-Brown, Chair of the Business & Sustainable Development Commission. “‘Better Business, Better World’ shows there is a compelling incentive for why the latter isn’t just good for the environment and society; it makes good business sense.”

Businesses keen to work with government

To coincide with the publication of the report, the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD), an open platform that supports organisations working towards sustainable development, yesterday (16 January) published an open letter to Prime Minster Theresa May calling on government to demonstrate its commitment to the UN’s SDGs.

Over 80 businesses, including IKEA, Diageo, HSBC and the Co-Op, have used the letter to state that they are ready to work with government to deliver the SDGs in the both UK and internationally but that the government must create a framework to help them do so.

The businesses, from a wide range of sectors, from supermarkets and food companies to banks and management consultancies, wrote: ‘We support your government to:

  • Demonstrate to business your commitment to deliver the SDGs in the UK;
  • Work with businesses to deliver the SDGs, creating a transparent reporting framework and clear benchmarks; and
  • Require all departments, not only the Department for International Development, to work with business and other stakeholders to develop an SDG delivery plan.’

The letter states that sustainable development will create jobs, increase competitiveness and secure the natural resources our economy relies on, and signs off with a vision of a ‘fairer, sustainable and more prosperous Britain’.

International businesses throw weight behind Sustainable Development Goals
EAC Chair Mary Creagh led questioning around the SDGs
Worrying lack of engagement from government

In an attempt to ensure the government is making progress towards the SDGs, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) is currently running an inquiry into how government is progressing towards the goals after an International Development Committee report in 2016 suggested that ‘insufficient’ progress had been made towards domestic implementation so far, with a ‘worrying lack of engagement’ by government departments.

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, a set of UN targets running from 2000 to 2015 that sought to combat extreme poverty around the world, the SDGs are wider-reaching and aim to make improvements in all communities.

Today (17 January), the committee quizzed James Wharton MP and Gwen Hines, Director of the International Relations Division, both from the Department for International Development (DFID) and Chris Skidmore MP, Minister for the Constitution at the Cabinet Office.

EAC Chair Mary Creagh expressed disappointment that the departments’ Secretaries of State did not attend the session themselves, but Wharton reaffirmed the Prime Minster’s commitment to the SDGs and stated that the government is currently seeing ‘good engagement’ from businesses, though these tend to be larger firms rather than small and medium-sized ones.

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