As the 71st session of the UN General Assembly kicks off in New York, we look at why the Sustainable Development Goals present such a huge opportunity for the business community – and how some companies are starting to take action.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) exist to give countries and companies a sure-fire way of prioritising their efforts to focus on the social, environmental and governance issues that need the most attention over the next 15 years.
Of course, meeting the SDGs is a tough ask and progress can be slow. But they are seen as a positive way of creating a life of dignity and opportunity for all – while offering a huge potential to boost profitable growth for businesses everywhere, working within the boundaries of the planet.
Unlike their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals which focused largely on how rich nations could help developing nations overcome their challenges, the SDGs apply equally to everyone, everywhere – not just governments, but business and civil society too.
So, how can businesses use them?
Yes, the challenges presented by the 17 Global Goals will impact on businesses. But rather than see them as problems or growth limiters, companies should see the meeting of the targets as the biggest growth opportunity in a generation.
“Every business will benefit from operating in a more equitable, resilient world if we achieve the SDGs,” says Unilever CEO, Paul Polman. “We have an opportunity to unlock trillions of dollars through new markets, investments and innovation. But to do so, we must challenge our current practices and address poverty, inequality and environmental challenges.”
But putting the SDGs at the heart of corporate strategy – with internal targets and policies, and the development of new products and services designed to meet the Goals – demands a change in mindset. However, doing well and doing good is now even more possible thanks to the Goals.
While not all of the Goals will apply to any one business, the list is designed to better direct public and private investment to where it’s needed most, helping companies to identify what types of innovation, technology or solutions are needed now to help them grow sustainably.
Three companies that are using the SDGs for good reason
The Goals have so far been positively adopted by many businesses, either to validate existing approaches to grappling with sustainability issues, or to support the development of new business models, products and services – but there is still much more to do.
Here are just a few examples of companies that are using the Global Goals to underpin their approach to sustainability:
In Kenya, more than 16 million people – 36% of the population – do not have access to clean drinking water. Realising the opportunity to grow its business across Africa, and to respond to Global Goal 6, water engineering firm Grundfos has helped Nairobi’s local water board to improve the capacity of its water services. Now, hundreds of thousands of city inhabitants can access a ‘water ATM’, which uses the company’s AQtap technology, and pay for their water use via mobile technology provided in partnership with Safaricom.
In the next five years, the business aims to reach 2 million people worldwide using a similar approach in places like India, Thailand and Bangladesh. “We’re generating great branding for Grundfos, which creates lots of credibility with decision makers because we’re doing a good job, which helps attract new business,” says Rasoul Mikkelsen, Director of Global Partnerships at Grundfos.
The SDGs manifest themselves in many of the Unilever brands. For example, addressing Global Goal 6, Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap brand has set about improving the hand-washing habits of 1 billion people – reducing the incidence of child deaths by as much as 44%, and boosting sales in countries with the highest rates of diarrhoea-related child deaths, such as India and Pakistan. “Public–private partnerships are crucial to achieve the SDGs, with health organisations and governments having the expertise to deliver messages in a scalable and sustainable way,” says Anila Gopal, Lifebuoy’s Global Social Mission Director.
Global Goal 16 calls for the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development. Safaricom’s response has been to work with political parties and content service providers across Kenya to make sure that inflammatory messages are not broadcast (PDF | 1.08MB) through bulk messaging services, as was the case in the aftermath of 2007 elections, resulting in large-scale violence between ethnically and politically opposing sides. The move has cut operating risks and strengthened brand recognition as a company willing to take up issues of national importance.