Business and the Sustainable Development Goals

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

Even business is taking the SDGs seriously.  This is, in part at least, because they are good for business because development is good for business; just as business is good for development.

There's a new report [**] on all this from the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership: Towards a sustainable economy: the commercial imperative for business to deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  It can be downloaded here.

The Institute introduces the report like this:

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a global strategy for achieving economic growth that is consistent with the planet’s carrying capacity, society’s basic needs and priorities, and the capabilities and stability of the economy.  In this report, leading companies from the newly formed Rewiring the Economy Inquiry Group call for a compelling business narrative and a systemic approach to maximise the chances of delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

And this is the Executive summary

Achieving the SDGs will be both a unique opportunity and a profound challenge. To maximise the chances of delivering the SDGs effectively and efficiently by 2030, a compelling business narrative and a systemic approach are required to help shift current thinking about economic progress towards models that deliver sustainable development. Without this shift, business commitment is unlikely to be sustained and rewarded with commercial success.

Comprehensively assessing business cases across 17 Goals and turning them into a practical and inspiring agenda is challenging for business and individual leaders, but there is an emerging commercial case for moving towards a sustainable economy.  This report shows that there are strong indications of robust commercial incentives to see the SDGs succeed, and for business to help deliver them.  Not only are there sizeable growth opportunities associated with implementing the SDGs, but failing to do so would undermine business continuity and stability.

Given the significant interdependencies between the SDGs, and their scale and urgency, cherry-picking the SDGs that have the easiest business case would be insufficient and potentially counterproductive.  A more holistic approach is needed, whereby the SDGs are presented as a vision for the future of business in society that is capable of: inspiring interest and creativity, identifying opportunities for future growth, and framing strategy for difficult trade-offs and problem solving.  Companies will have to focus on a systems approach to actively help ‘rewire’ the operating context.

Useful reading for all interested in the goals and their realisation.  An early highlight for me was Figure 2: Six outcomes and ten interconnected tasks.  This is in section 2.1: Rewiring the Economy: ten tasks, ten years.

'Rewiring the Economy' sets out CISL’s ten-year plan to lay the foundations of a sustainable economy that is capable of delivering the SDGs.  The plan starts from the principle that the economy can and should be delivering the outcomes demanded by the SDGs. It outlines a set of ten interconnected ‘tasks’ that target the systemic changes required across government, finance and business, including businesses’ role in enabling the structural and cultural transformations needed.  These tasks are not unique to the plan.  Rather, Rewiring the Economy shows how they can be tackled co-operatively during the next decade to create an economy that encourages sustainable business practices, and thus delivers the positive social and environmental outcomes demanded by the SDGs.  Rewiring the Economy arranges the 17 SDGs into six areas of social and environmental impact: basic needs, wellbeing, decent work, climate stability, resource security and healthy ecosystems. Each impact area encompasses one or more SDGs, making it easier to visualise the connections between them.  The Investment Leaders Group (also convened by CISL) is developing a set of metrics to help companies assess their social and environmental impact in each area.

There are ideas in this which those in education who wish to focus on the goals will surely find of interest, especially if they compare it with Oxfam's Doughnut Economics.


** University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). (2017). Towards a sustainable economy: The commercial imperative for business to deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Cambridge, UK: the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

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