• International Workplace
  • 10 October 2017

Delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals: the commercial case

Delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is imperative for business growth, continuity and stability, according to a new report published by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and a group of leading companies including Marks & Spencer, Jaguar Land Rover, Hammerson plc, Tetra Pak, Novo Nordisk and Keller plc.

The report, ‘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 maximise the chances of delivering the SDGs.

Given the significant interdependencies between the Goals, their scale and urgency, and the changing expectations and operating context for business, the report warns companies against cherry-picking the SDGs that have the easiest business case, as this will be insufficient and potentially counterproductive.

To succeed, the report calls for business to ‘reframe’ the SDGs as a ‘vision for the future’ of business that inspires interest and creativity, identifies opportunities for future growth, and a framing strategy for difficult trade-offs and problem solving.

Aris Vrettos, Programme Director, CISL, said:

“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.”

The ‘Rewiring the Economy Inquiry Group’ was formed to explore key questions relating to the role of business in delivering the 17 SDGs by 2030.

According to the report, the findings show that not only do forward-looking companies stand to benefit most from meeting the SDGs, they may also be more resilient and better able to deal with the severe commercial consequences of failing to achieve them.

Munish Datta, Head of Property Plan A and Facilities Management, Marks & Spencer, said:

“The challenges businesses face from climate change are significant and will impact on ‘business as usual’. We must work collaboratively to reduce CO2 emissions in line with science-informed targets.”

The report shows that many of the business models and practices that are expected to reshape industry are already emerging. But the report warns that while early adopters can make positive business gains, those failing to adopt the SDGs will experience disruption and missed opportunities.

The report 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.

One of the approaches suggested is for business to help governments ‘raise the bar’. Mario Abreu, Vice President of Environment, Tetra Pak, said: 

“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 benefiting our sector and its stakeholders.”

The report follows on from 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. It encourages companies to engage effectively, and collaboratively with the SDGs and asks business leaders to examine their own case and capabilities for change.

Using evidence from the Inquiry Group the report suggests that although governmental leadership remains a critical factor there is also a strong commercial case for business to lead the shift to a sustainable economy that can deliver the SDGs as a whole.

According to the report, companies can take specific measures to align their core business with the SDGs, help build commitment and ambition on key issues in their sector, and create space for innovation and leadership in the wider system.

The report suggests that such approaches can be challenging for businesses and individual leaders but concludes that leading companies have both the appetite and a strong interest to set the stage for change and reap the commercial benefits of delivering the SDGs.

Susanne Stormer, Group Head of Corporate Sustainability, Novo Nordisk, said:

“The approaches outlined in this report will require capabilities that are not readily found in business today. It is crucial that we support the development of skills that enable companies and future leaders to achieve a long-term, science-based perspective; the ability to operate collaboratively, the confidence to challenge the current paradigm; and the determination to set a direction for the business in an ambiguous context.”