Business Engagement with the Sustainable Development Goals: The Global Challenge; the Global Opportunity

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (The Goals or SDGs), provide a comprehensive framework for action, that must be taken to end extreme poverty, inequality and address climate change by 2030. According to research delivering The Goals has the potential to unlock $12 trillion in business opportunities.

Launched in 2015, The Goals are designed for all countries to interpret and not just for developing countries. The SDGs aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all by 2030. The success of business and communities are inextricably linked – this has never been more evident than it is today.

For more than 15 years, Business in the Community, alongside many other organisations have been playing it’s part in championing the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Our focus has been to raise awareness, and understanding of The Goals, to help inspire, engage support and challenge businesses to take action.

With 17 goals and 169 targets, The Goals provide the blue print for action for governments, institutions, civil society and business globally. It is the most comprehensive call for urgent collective action, ever. Considerable progress has been made to address the MDGs, and over the last 15 years the critical role of business has been evident. But collectively across all stakeholders there is much more to be done to build a fairer society and a more sustainable future. 

Where we are now

As we approach the second anniversary of The Goals, the UN Secretary’s Report on Progress 2017 has just been published and documents its success so far. Based on a selection of global indicators, the report shows that whilst there is some general progress across the board - it is uneven.There is also an overwhelming consensus that much more needs to be done if we are to achieve our global promises, ambitions and commitments.

Recent research by a number of leading organisations highlights the enormous opportunity The Goals present. As outlined in the Business Sustainable Development Commission’s, Better Business, Better World, report, some $12 trillion could be unlocked through the business opportunities in delivering on The Goals .

Globescan and SustainAbility’s report, Evaluating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, and Ethical Corporation’s ‘Responsible Business Trends Report 2017 identifies that whilst business and governments’ performance in terms of embracing The Goals so far has been poor, they have highlighted that 50-60 per cent of respondents are reporting that their companies are developing or planning to develop SDG-related products. The Evaluating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, report also indicates `that 35 per cent are developing public private partnerships to address The Goals’

Business Fights Poverty recently launched Embedding the SDGs into Business which provides valuable insight based on in depth analysis in terms of how to embed the SDGs into business. Through this study the following key elements have been identified:

  • The importance of embedding The Goals into the core of the business

  • Mapping and prioritising The Goals and targets to address and provide guidance

  • Setting business relevant targets

  • Integrating approaches into existing products and services, processes and initiatives

  • Reporting on how and to what extent The Goals are embedded into core busines

Each report is consistent in outlining the importance of The Goals including:

  • The enormous challenge and opportunity The Goals present to business and society

  • That the call to action is loud and clear

  • That there has been some progress in achieving them

  • The urgency and acceleration required

  • The critical role and opportunity for business

  • The importance of partnership and collaboration

It is essential to accelerate the pace, to ensure that support does not come too late.The stakes are too high

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The Role of Business in the Community

Our role at Business in the Community is to convene, inspire and champion The Goals. We continue to raise awareness and understanding of the agenda through identifying, recognising, celebrating success, sharing best practice, providing insight and opportunities to learn, and sharing and challenging business to take action.

As such, we were delighted to once again run the Global Development Award, (formerly known as the International Award), as part of our annual Responsible Business Awards. This award identifies, recognises and celebrates companies whose programmes are impacting one or more of The Goals. This year it was sponsored by Unilever and supported by Business Fights Poverty.

Finalists 2017 of the Unilever Global Development Award supported by Business Fights Poverty

This year’s finalists and winners together represented a huge diversity of industries and approaches from across the globe, each addressing multiple goals (see above image for percentage figures on how many of our Finalists are working towards each goal). Together they impacted all of The Goals except Goal 14, Life below Water, and Goal 16, Peace Justice and Strong Institutions. Worryingly, from the recent research, progress in achieving these two goals has been slow.

The 2017 Award submissions showed a number of developments when compared with entries from previous years.These include:

  • An increased emphasis on holistic programmes that address multiple Goals.

  • The compelling mutual benefits and impact on society and business

  • The importance of powerful partnerships based on complementary skills and expertise

  • The appreciation of the complexities of the challenges

Business response to the UN SDGs: Trends and award winning programmes

A number of the 2017 Awards finalists participated in our recent webinar supported by Business Fights Poverty. Sharing their approach, insight, learnings and best practice, the webinar inspired audiences and delivered a call to action. The webinar included the following case studies.

WaterHealth International  took on the challenge to create a sustainable programme that provides clean, safe and affordable drinking water to underserved communities across India, Ghana and Nigeria. This programme demonstrated how through it’s approach, a sustainable, replicable initiative was delivering significant impact. 

Solar Aid/Sunny Money  is a small social enterprise with a single- minded mission: to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by 2020. The model is based on solar lights and they have built an innovative business that aims to maximise their impact on rural African families, setting up and establishing sustainable markets and moving on to catalyse the next solar market.

AgroAmerica based in Guatemala has developed a Living Wage programme bringing decent jobs to the rural areas of Guatemala and paying a living wage. AgroAmerica support their staff and families and at the same time support a range of local community organisations including hospitals and schools.

Barclays and GSK’s Live Well programme with CARE International offers new ways to provide affordable healthcare in Africa and promote economic development. In addition, both Barclays and GSK share the lessons learned through their powerful partnership. This includes insights as they explored a number of ‘access’ orientated business models.

Ayzh based in India addresses improvement to maternal health and the reduction in infant mortality, using an innovative, sustainable and mission-driven business model called ‘The Clean Birth’ initiative.

M-Tron / SETA Foundation is another inspiring example which uses ’Techno-preneurial’ skills (entrepreneurial skills in the technology sector) to get people out of poverty and supporting sustainable agriculture, with a unique approach that hopes to inspire five million young people across the African continent.  

The Goals are increasingly used to inform decision making, support and guide business planning and strategy, drive innovation, deliver economic benefits and create and add value to value chains. Together the 2017 Award finalists addressed almost all of The Goals, positively impacting over 11.5 million people, training some 10,000 people in new skills and helping support the 57 per cent reduction in deaths of newborn children in India.

How we can help

The research clearly shows that if we as a global community are able to achieve The Goals by ending extreme poverty, inequality and addressing climate change by 2030, it is essential that we speed up and do more.

Evidence drawn from the research indicates slow progress. We can take heart however from the engagement illustrated by our Responsible Business Award finalist case studies. Businesses around the world are engaged, and our case studies together with others for instance as outlined in the Better Business Better World report, demonstrate that businesses are working towards a better future. However, to achieve The Goals, we all need to do significantly more.

Sustainable business models which are replicable and scalable, are being developed. The challenge is to identify, recognise and share them with as wide an audience as possible, to help inspire action. As such, to further support essential business engagement and action on the agenda, Business in the Community will focus on engaging, supporting and challenging businesses on the agenda. We will continue to provide an inspiring programme of events including webinars, workshops and conferences, insight Awards and case studies to build the business case, stimulate thinking on how to address the challenges, and we encourage you to join us.

One thing is clear, there is huge opportunity for people, planet and profit. So too is there a huge risk of failing to act, or doing too little too late

. The business case, the global challenge and the opportunities are clear. Business is a key part of the solution and both businesses and communities have much to gain. Business also has much to lose too. It is vital for us all to take action and accelerate the pace of change today.

For further information contact Sue Adkins, International Director at Business in the Community: international@bitc.org.uk