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Finance & Investment
With Less Than 4,000 Days to Go, Business Contribution to SDGs Falling Woefully Short

Despite some progress since the goals were launched in 2015, advancement over the past four years has been stifled due to socioeconomic, geopolitical and technological uncertainties, hindering CEOs’ sustainability efforts.

CEOs say business contribution to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is not on track, according to a new study by the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and Accenture.

Launched today at the UN General Assembly in New York, the UN Global Compact-Accenture Strategy 2019 CEO study finds that just 21 percent of leaders believe business is playing a critical role in contributing to the Global Goals. The study, which draws on insights from more than 1,000 CEOs, is the world’s most comprehensive research to date on business contribution to the SDGs.

“With less than 4,000 days remaining until the 2030 target, leaders are not content with current progress and calling for their sectors and peers to step-up and turn commitment into action,” said Lise Kingo, CEO and Executive Director of the UNGC. “The scale of the challenge is unprecedented and requires all stakeholders — including governments, policymakers, business leaders, investors, shareholders, civil society and academia — to work together to accelerate change.”

The UNGC-Accenture Strategy CEO study represents more than a decade of research on sustainable business; it forms the world’s most comprehensive research to date on business contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals. The 2019 study draws on insights from more than 1,000 CEOs from 21 industries and 99 countries, including over 100 in-depth interviews, and a further 1,500-plus senior business leaders who responded to the UNGC implementation survey.

While progress has been made — the global population is living better lives than they did a decade ago and infant mortality has declined — advancement in a number of areas has been sluggish or even reversed. Today, 700 million people still live in extreme poverty, over 200 million remain jobless and more than 65 million seek refuge. Famine, extreme climate events, overpopulation, water scarcity, gender-based violence and a rise in armed conflict and extremism continue to define lives around the world.

CEOs: Challenging environment stalling corporate progress

According to the study, 99 percent of CEOs of the world’s largest companies say sustainability is critical to the future success of their organization, and 81 percent of companies are taking action to progress the Global Goals. Over 200 companies have approved science-based targets for climate action and a similar number have made commitments to go 100 percent renewable. CEOs say an unprecedented shift in public expectations is driving businesses to get ahead on sustainability to build trust and competitiveness in their markets.

However, these commitments are failing to deliver the desired impact. CEOs say that business execution is not measuring up to the size of the challenge or previous levels of corporate ambition. While 67 percent of signatories committing to sustainability are CEOs, only 48 percent are integrating sustainability into their business operations. Just 44 percent of CEOs believe a net-zero future is on the horizon for their company in the next 10 years. Over a quarter (28 percent) cite “absence of market pull” as a top barrier to sustainable business — though recent NYU Stern research shows evidence to the contrary — and over half (55 percent) say pressure to operate under extreme cost-consciousness against investing in long-term strategic objectives is a key trade-off that many are facing.

“Every company’s license to operate is being determined by their individual contributions to sustainability. The world is looking closely at their action and impact, with employees, customers and stakeholders alike holding leaders to a higher standard and expecting them to drive bold action,” said Peter Lacy, Senior Managing Director at . “With sustainability being integral to the competitive agility of every organization — as important as growth, profitability and trust — it’s time for leaders to ensure sustainability goals are firmly embedded in corporate strategy and company purpose.”

Kickstarting a decade of delivery

Nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of CEOs believe that with increased commitment and action, businesses can play a critical role in contributing to the Global Goals.

To accelerate progress, CEOs identify three critical requirements:

  • First, an urgent need to raise corporate ambition within their own organizations to prioritize action against the 17 SDGs.

  • Second, the need for business, governments, regulators and NGOs to come together to shape realistic, science-based solutions to the global challenges.

  • And third, redefining responsible leadership to enable business to be a leading actor in driving the Global Goals.

The future of responsible leadership

For companies to progress towards a more sustainable future, the CEOs polled highlighted the leadership qualities that are critical for success:

  1. Pioneering profit through purpose: Growing expectations from consumers, employees and the public are placing new demands on leaders to serve a higher purpose in helping ensure a sustainable future. Leading CEOs look beyond near-term profits in order to meaningfully drive forward the sustainability agenda, and foster a culture of responsibility and transparency to demonstrate impact.

  2. Galvanizing ecosystems: CEOs must engage their broader ecosystems to find collective solutions to the SDGs. Given the nature and complexity of these issues, science-based leadership will play a crucial role in driving action and impact.

  3. Personally committing to sustainability: Responsible leaders take sustainability personally, hold people to account for sustainability goals, force the discussion with investors, and lead positive change with authenticity and integrity.