Wanted: corporate global citizens to deliver the SDGs

Businesses are global citizens too – and have a prominent role in collective achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, explains guest blogger David Croft.  

David Croft's picture
Insight by 
David Croft
David Croft is global director, sustainability, RB
24 January 2020
Profit with purpose: the role of business in achieving sustainable development
A series of blogs and interviews exploring how business and investors can contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals
A beautiful coastline but, in the foreground, a woman is sorting a huge pile of plastic bottles

A surprisingly large number of the plastic bottles and cans found along the shoreline in the Norwegian Arctic are of foreign origin. What can businesses do to prevent this? (Photo: Bo Eide, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a global issue; all the world’s citizens need to play their part. But ‘global citizen’ doesn’t just mean individuals. It also means organisations: large and small, public and private, civil society.

Unless we see organisations, especially businesses, as global citizens, we will fail to recognise the interdependencies that exist within the complex ecosystem that binds us.

For business leaders, that failure can lead to anything from poor performance, loss of supplies, inability to operate and even collapse of their business. These have consequences for their future, but also for wider society. Conversely, leaders recognising their role within this ecosystem and making positive contributions can be a recipe for success and inclusive growth – growth across society with opportunities for all.

Crucial players

The multi-trillion-dollar costs of delivering the goals cannot be met by governments alone. It requires more than philanthropy. We need to leverage markets and their actors to make a difference, and not just economically but through how those actors work – across global value chains; influencing through investment, communications and partnerships; seeking to create inclusive growth through relatively small shifts in approach to create impact within and through their activities.

So far, so simple, so obvious. But so difficult. While many private sector players may have been insular in the past, some are now recognising their social and environmental responsibilities. Some argue ‘too little, too late’, or that it’s only enlightened self-interest. Either way, we need to leverage these actors. They have the power to mobilise billions of dollars and reach billions of people in their value chain.

This may be through design of products, communications or services; their influence on suppliers; or the connection with people they have or can make. Whether they have been part of the world’s social, environmental and economic problems is now almost irrelevant: they can, and need to be, part of the solution going forward.

In support, we need policy environments that both penalise and encourage. The former is obvious, necessary, and applicable to all sectors. And making the case for it is easy, practically and politically, especially when we increasingly see the consequences of inaction.

Plastics are a case in point. However, the latter – encouragement – is critical if we want to create greater-scale impact, faster. Looking only to the laggards will not help if we want to move quickly. We need rapid change at scale, and we need to give much greater encouragement to businesses to leverage their market position to deliver that change. And why not recognise those who contribute to solutions rather than simply penalising the ones who don’t?

Measuring success

Recognising and encouraging new ways of working and partnerships can deliver inclusive growth at scale. Of course, we also need to demonstrate the impact being made. Metrics are important for progress and to build trust that can justify policy environments.

Environmental reporting is now largely mainstream although whether the data being collected is providing useful information on performance is a moot point. The pressure from investors to bring greater clarity on environmental risk and performance is well placed.

And while metrics on social impact are still developing, for this to be scalable, we should expect, and even require, better triple-bottom line reporting. Indeed, for carrots to be provided, it’s a prerequisite.

Behavioural shifts

The theory needs processes to drive it. But processes inevitably need to engage people. The trouble is, we can all be insular to a degree. We use and choose language depending on our community, come with unconscious (and even conscious) biases that influence our decisions, and associate with a relatively small group.

This supports technological solutions, maybe even drives them. But if we look across the SDGs, some of the biggest changes we need to make are not technical but behavioural.

Also in the series

Blog: We need more than business as usual, to leave no one behind – Rijit Sengupta discusses the challenges and opportunities for businesses in India seeking to raise the bar on sustainability

Blog: Ten reasons why we have to rewrite the sustainability rule book, and now – Mike Barry shares tips on how to become a sustainable business leader of tomorrow

Interview: IIED’s Laura Kelly puts questions to Chris West from Sumerian Partners on the lessons and challenges from impact investing

Blog: When investors go green – Pernille Holtedahl unpacks the growing appetite for green bonds

Blog: Is Davos signalling the end of business as usual? – to coincide with the World Economic Forum, Andrew Norton asks how a progressive sustainability manifesto can omit climate change

If we want to tackle the SDGs we need behaviours to change, within and between organisations and sectors. We need to use language that is readily understood by all, not just those within a specific group. But the languages of governments, civil society and business differ enormously.

To be fair, it’s true everywhere: ask 20 different sustainability practitioners to define sustainability and you’ll get a range of answers. But without a more common language, how can we expect to create collaborative change at scale, a wide-ranging process that every sector engages with and a shared delivery of inclusive growth?

SDG17: the golden goal?

On this basis, SDG17 – the goal that recognises that global partnerships will be fundamental to delivering the other 16 – may be the most important one of all.

Perhaps we all need to work out how we can deliver the 17th goal while striving to achieve the others? Perhaps we can remember our tendencies to be insular and challenge ourselves to cross boundaries more often, to engage the widest audience?

Perhaps we can ask ourselves, our organisations, what it takes to be an active global citizen, and then make sure we play that part to the full – alongside the billions of other citizens we need to work with to deliver the SDGs and a thriving society for the future.