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Walking the Talk
New Tools Provide Businesses with Roadmap to Deliver on SDGs

Following through on the commitments outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals is one of the best shots companies have to maintain a competitive advantage and future-proof their businesses, but progress has thus far been lacking.

Following through on the commitments outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals is one of the best shots companies have to maintain a competitive advantage and future-proof their businesses, but progress has thus far been lacking.

A report released in June by the UN Global Compact revealed that while many companies are finally beginning to align their sustainability strategies with the SDGs, more than one-third of the initiative’s participating 9,000 businesses have yet to set measurable targets and only 55 percent are tracking progress. The report also showed that less than 30 percent of businesses regularly monitor the performance of their suppliers. Following the publication of a study by CSR Europe and GlobeScan, which identified a lack of middle management engagement as a significant obstacle to the achievement of the SDGs, the results are hardly surprising.

To help close the gap between intentions and action, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has endorsed a new report from Earth Security Group, which provides a roadmap to help global businesses navigate the risks and opportunities reflected in the SDGs and align their growth to the demands for social inclusion and environmental security in the countries in which they operate.

“Earth Security Group’s emphasis of a systems-based approach to rethinking business models is commendable, with companies focusing on SDGs that are material to their growth and resilience,” said Peter Bakker, president of WBCSD. “The work reinforces the fact that none of this can be accomplished alone by business or any group of stakeholders. Good governance, economic incentives, appropriate and robust legal and institutional framework conditions and public-private partnerships are essentials.”

For those that are still unsure of the business case for embracing the SDGs, the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership’s (CISL) newly formed Rewiring the Economy Inquiry Group and a group of leading companies including Marks & Spencer, Jaguar Land Rover, Hammerson plc, Tetra Pak, Novo Nordisk and Keller plc. have published a report highlighting the benefits businesses can expect to reap by delivering on the SDG agenda.

Towards a Sustainable Economy: The Commercial Imperative for business to deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals calls for companies to adopt a systems approach in order to maximize the chances of delivering the SDGs. Given the interdependent nature of the goals, the report warns against cherry-picking the SDGs that have the easiest business case, instead encouraging businesses to ‘reframe’ the SDGs as a ‘vision for the future’ of business.

The report builds on CISL’s 2015 report, Rewiring the Economy, which outlines CISL’s plan for a sustainable economy. It uses CISL’s Rewiring the Economy framework to help companies turn the Goals into a practical commercial agenda and encourages companies to engage effectively, and collaboratively with the SDGs and asks business leaders to examine their own case and capabilities for change.

“Delivering the SDGs will require, and trigger, structural transformations. In order to manage the shared risks and opportunities companies, governments, investors and other actors need to work effectively together in a coordinated manner. There are benefits for early movers and leaders across the sectors surveyed in this report but the full rewards may rely on an enabling environment in which business helps to shape the operating context needed for a sustainable economy,” said Aris Vrettos, Program Director at CISL.

The Rewiring the Economy Inquiry Group was formed to explore key questions relating to the role of business in delivering on the SDGs. The Group developed two scenarios showing how continuing with business as usual and following a sustainable agenda could impact a range of sectors by 2030 using the framework of the SDGs as a guide.

The findings demonstrated that forward-looking companies stand to gain the most benefit from meeting the SDGs and are more resilient and better able to mitigate the commercial consequences of failing to achieve them.

Delivering on the SDGs will require transformative action on behalf of brands, but the report revealed that many of the business models and practices expected to shape the industry are already emerging. The report warns that while early adopters can make positive business gains, those failing to embrace the SDGs will experience disruption and missed opportunities.

Towards a Sustainable Economy offers examples of how Inquiry Group members are already promoting change internally, in their sectors and the wider system. Eight business-led approaches offer signposts to implement systemic changes to deliver the SDGs. Though these approaches can be challenging for businesses and individual leaders, the report concludes that leading companies have both the appetite and a strong interest to pave the way for change and reap the commercial benefits of delivering the SDGs.

“Policymakers can hear conflicting stories from companies within the same sector that find themselves in different circumstances and levels of sustainability ambition. Which voice do they listen to? As businesses, we should work to find common ground and suggest a long-term coordinated strategy benefitting our sector and its stakeholders,” said Mario Abreu, VP of Environment at Tetra Pak.