This pandemic throws a spotlight on the interdependencies between business, nature and society. It may be tempting right now, when it is hard to see beyond the next few weeks, to dismiss the SDGs as a distraction. But they have been described as a “crowd-sourced purchase order from the future” precisely because they offer a tremendous business opportunity.
A unique moment for business
I went on a run through my local shopping centre last week. Its usually crowded courtyard was empty but for the gazes of mannequins sporting last season’s styles, staring out from behind the windows of fashion brand Barbour. It seemed to me that they were all standing far too close together for these strange new times. And their must-have garments — even if they could be sold and did not already look dated — no longer felt like must-haves.
Across the country, hospital workers were tearing open plastic-wrapped parcels made by the same company, which has temporarily repurposed its factories to mass-produce Personal Protective Equipment. This is just one example of a company visibly helping out where it can, even while facing existential challenges to its core business model.
What this moment teaches us
Similar stories are being played out across almost all industries. Perceptions that what matters most is market value and customer demand are giving way to a realisation that business success is highly dependent on government guidance, worker wellbeing, and what society really needs. Lockdowns across the world have highlighted the vulnerabilities in our value webs. Even if unforeseen events occur in far-flung corners of the globe, they may in some way affect us all.
This pandemic throws a spotlight on the interdependences between business, nature and society. If you didn’t think that encroaching on natural ecosystems or protecting public health were relevant to your business, you almost certainly see the links now. And this moment in time is not a one-off: as many commentators have highlighted, the climate emergency and other systemic challenges only serve to increase the likelihood of other globally disruptive events in the years ahead.
(Re-)enter the SDGs
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So, how do we get things back on track? Well, as many have pointed out, going ‘back’ is not the answer. Rather we must chart a path forward together — one which regenerates Earth’s natural systems and rebuilds our social fabric; and in so doing, increases our collective resilience to future shocks.
The good news is that we already have a shared understanding of where we need to go, in the form of the UN Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.
Set and signed by UN member states in 2015 with a set of clear targets for 2030, the SDGs are described as “a shared blueprint for people and the planet.” In short, they set out what world needs:
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) … are an urgent call for action by all countries — developed and developing — in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth — all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.
To deliver the SDGs, governments must step up — by putting in place the rules and incentives necessary to foster effective, market-based solutions. But even when they are slow to act, there is much that companies can do.
It may be tempting right now, when it is hard for most CEOs and CFOs to see beyond the next few weeks, to dismiss the SDGs as a distraction. But we should remind ourselves that they have been described as a “crowd-sourced purchase order from the future” precisely because they offer a tremendous business opportunity. That phrase — business opportunity — is overused, often euphemistically to make a seemingly intractable problem feel approachable. But in the current moment, when companies really must question everything they thought they knew, here is one question all business leaders should stop and ask themselves:
How might we redeploy our current competencies and know-how in completely new ways, to make money in service of the SDGs?
Finding an answer to this question could well prove to be the best path to success for the business and society as a whole.
But where to start?
The SDGs offer a shared vision for the problems we must solve, and a common vocabulary for talking about progress. But they are not business-specific, and many companies struggle to translate them into action. This is where the Future-Fit Business Benchmark comes in. This free-to-use methodology equips any business to look at the SDGs holistically — to focus on maximising their positive impacts where it makes most sense, while understanding and minimising their negative impacts elsewhere.
This year, the Future-Fit team is running a series of workshops across the globe in partnership with UN Global Compact Local Networks, to help companies of all sizes and sectors understand how they can build back better in a post-COVID world. So far, we have workshops confirmed in Australia, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, India, Japan, Norway and Sweden. If your business is based in one of these countries, please reach out to your Local Network lead to find out more. And if your country isn’t on this list, let us know and we’ll see what we can do, as more events are planned.
In a follow-up article, we’ll dig deeper into why a holistic response to the SDGs is so important. In the meantime, you can explore the Future-Fit Business Benchmark for yourself on our website.