Business and the SDGs: Role, opportunity and responsibility

James Gomme, Manager, Social Impact at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), argues that it is important that companies understand the implications of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) across the spectrum of roleopportunity and responsibility.

Geneva, 21 November 2016: He laid out the above line of thinking in a recent article published by WBCSD’s Global Network partner organization BCSD Portugal, which was published in Portuguese. Find below the key excerpts in English.  

The role of business
Although fundamentally it will be down to governments to tackle SDG implementation at a national level, the goals simply will not be achieved without meaningful action by business. Business has a key role to play as an engine of economic growth and employment and a source of finance, technology and innovation. A prosperous, SDG-compatible 2030 will rely heavily on innovations across areas such as sustainable cities, climate-smart agriculture, clean energy, and improved medicine and health care – all areas that depend on the dynamism and the funding of the private sector working in close partnership with governments and communities.

However, business cannot act alone. Success will also depend on governments regulating in favor of this innovation, which will put new technologies and products onto a level playing field with conventional ones.

An historic opportunity
At the same time the SDGs also represent an historic opportunity for business. Companies can use the SDGs as an overarching framework to shape, steer, communicate and report their strategies, goals and activities, allowing them to capitalize on a range of benefits.

First of all, while the SDGs themselves are not legally binding, they still serve as an important road map regarding future policy direction at international, national and regional levels. Companies that align themselves with the SDGs and are able to communicate clearly around how their business helps individual governments to achieve their goals, are likely to be able to consolidate a strong license to operate and to differentiate themselves from competitors. Likewise, those that don’t will be exposed to growing legal and reputational risks.

Furthermore, as the SDGs redirect global public and private investment flows towards dealing with the challenges they represent, those companies that embrace the transformative power of the goals and can identify appropriate business solutions will be able to open up exciting and lucrative new markets.

Perhaps most fundamentally however, investing in the achievement of the SDGs supports stable societies and markets – the pillars upon which business success is built. As noted by Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, “It is not possible to have a strong, functioning business in a world of increasing inequality, poverty and climate change”. Business has an inherent self-interest in the realization of the goals and stands to unlock trillions of dollars through new markets if they are achieved.

The business opportunities surrounding the goals will be more fully articulated in an upcoming report due for release in early 2017 by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission which was established by Paul Polman and former UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown in January this year specifically to focus on research in this field. 

Remaining mindful of responsibility

While pursuing these opportunities it is also important to remain mindful of the core responsibilities that business has with regard to the development agenda. The baseline for any company should be to ensure that its operations are not hindering global development. Negative social impacts, in particular around human rights, cannot be offset by positive contributions, and every company has a responsibility first and foremost to identify and mitigate them as a baseline for meaningful SDG alignment.

The SDGs will not be easy to achieve and, in the case of some goals, will necessitate complete transformation of existing systems and practices.  Despite this challenge however, the goals also represent an immense economic opportunity. By developing a better understanding and proactively addressing the SDGs, companies will be able to better manage their risks, anticipate consumers’ demand, secure access to needed resources, differentiate themselves from competitors, and strengthen their supply chains. In essence, the SDGs can help businesses to connect their strategies with global priorities while also playing their part in ensuring no one is left behind.

For more information on business and the SDGs, go to our SDG Business Hub, an online resource which looks to consolidate the progressive voice of leading business on the SDGs, and serves as a one-stop-shop bringing together various emerging tools, guidelines and insights with a view to supporting companies as they seek to effectively navigate this dynamic space.