It was a packed house on Wednesday afternoon at SB’16 San Diego, where attendees sat on the floor and crowded around the door to hear panelists from companies leading the way in sustainability discuss their strategies, and their personal experiences, in aligning with and addressing the UN SDGs.
Moderator Bill Baue from Sustainability Context Group opened the session with an overview of the progress that the private sector has already made in tackling SDGs. Referring to the Goals as a holistic “donut,” and corporations as being “slices of the pie,” Baue emphasized that growing from the micro, individual company level to the macro level of company collaboration will be key to successful SDG action.
He then passed the torch to the panelists – Jonathan Atwood, VP of Sustainability & Corporate Communications at Unilever; Claus Stig Pedersen, Head of Corporate Sustainability at Novozymes; Charlene Wall-Warren, Director of Sustainability at BASF; and Maureen Sertich, Sustainability Lead of North America at Whirlpool – who all gave an overview of how their company was making progress on the SDGs in a concrete way.
Each speaker described a slightly different strategy for approaching and integrating SDGs:
Wall-Warren zeroed-in further on the specific actions that BASF has taken to address Goal 6: The chemical giant has created products for desalinization and wastewater treatment, has signed the WBCSD Wash pledge, and is investing in academic research on how sunlight can be used to purify water. She also emphasized the importance of groundbreaking partnerships to SDG success, stating that “(partnerships are) where we can all look to drive more progress.”
Novozymes undertook a process to group global goals and targets into 15 impact categories. “Simplifying is key to success,” Pedersen said. “We have broken the goals down into quantifiable and operational impact categories that are most closely related to our activities.” This streamlined understanding of the goals has been integrated into a new priority process for the company. When deciding on the viability of a new product or initiative, Novozymes mainly considers expected sales and strategic fit, but beginning August 10, the company will add SDG impact potential to this evaluation process. Pedersen added that the process will likely have the additional bonus of providing motivational stories to convey to employees and customers, as a way of showing that the company cares.
Pedersen also expanded on the role that partnerships can play in developing initiatives that the company may not be able to undertake on its own. “If we have an innovation with the potential to really do something good, but we don't really see how to create a business, then we can go to other governments or NGOs who can be partners in developing this.”
Sertich said she sees the Goals as providing the leverage that companies can use to make substantial changes: ”The SDGs give some legitimacy to things that we already had a vision for. We are able to use them as a reference tool to push into business.” Whirlpool’s focus on energy and water efficiency means that they have been consciously addressing SDGs in those areas. Maureen expanded on the company’s additional challenge area of achieving zero waste to landfill from manufacturing by 2022, describing the challenges that have come with such a goal.
“Zero waste is a challenge in business because some materials are quite difficult to manage,” she explained. “The company’s main focus around waste management is to consider the materials that we are throwing out, and whether there is a way to utilize those materials to create more of an economic driver.”
Meanwhile, Atwood worries that the private sector may be complicating the SDGs by moving away from an idea that is clear-cut at its core: “What we are talking about is a framework of human needs, and business needs to step into this with soul and play a role – it’s that simple.”
Atwood blazed a trail in his five-minute talk, condemning complicated frameworks and giving an emotional appeal. “I’m not a smart guy, just a human being.” he said. “I’m the father of an eleven-year-old who is never going to know what an SDG is. What he will know is that his father was acting with a bunch of people, collectively, to change the world.” His speech was met with an enthusiastic round of applause, and a sense that maybe business really will rise to meet the challenges set by the SDGs.