The Responsible Business Summit Europe (RBSEU), which recently took place in London, sparked debate about how we can transform the world while building great and sustainable businesses. I was inspired by sessions describing how companies are putting into practice processes to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and committing to the Paris agreement, and hope to pay that inspiration forward just a bit, by writing about it here.
Understanding the SDGs and what they mean for businesses
In September 2015, all Member States of the United Nations adopted a plan for achieving a better future for all. The objectives are simple, yet represent an important challenge to achieve: they established a plan for the next 15 years to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and protect our planet. At the heart of Agenda 2030 you will find the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which clearly define the world we want. The SDGs apply to all nations and leave no one behind.
The evolution of the business world over the past 10 years
It was personally rewarding for me to see the great strides enterprises have made in the 10 years since I joined Boréalis, hoping to somehow make a difference in this world. I wanted to help reduce the mistrust and miscommunications I felt happening between corporations, civil society, and the scientific community. Today I feel it is happening.
This journey got me initially into the extractive sector, which 10-15 years ago was quite thoughtful about how can we manage our social and environmental impacts because otherwise we saw civil unrest and projects being shut down, which was definitely not good business.
At the same time I do certainly acknowledge today that natural resources are still quite necessary to our societies. Just think about the resources like metals/plastics that are used to build our homes, roads, offices, smart phones, hospital equipment, electric car batteries, sports equipment, and the list goes on.
There is still a lot to do in that space even today, but many companies have taken a responsible approach to their business, acknowledging their impacts and compensating for them in other areas where they can drive a greater change. Today the extractive sectors provide best practices for many organizations in multiple industries seeking to build trust and understanding with important stakeholder groups.
My work with Boréalis clients helps advance Stakeholder Engagement programs for community relations, responsible sourcing, social and environmental performance and public affairs. I don’t suppose my personal efforts have moved the needle very much, however I do believe that working together, we can all take some small credit for the great strides that are being made today.
How does it all connect to the Responsible Business Summit?
The RBSEU’s underlying theme showed corporations acting as leaders and responsible citizens – because customers demand it. They want to know that companies share their values and that their investments – in products and even stock — may eventually support SDGs. This is the fight of a generation, a moment that belongs to everyone on the planet, a moment where everybody can play a role. And this is inspiring.
Before jumping into individual presentations, there is the initial matter of materiality assessment. What is materiality assessment? It’s an exercise part of the broader stakeholder engagement process that is designed to collect insights on the relative importance of specific environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues for businesses. While insights are most commonly used to inform sustainability reporting and communication strategies, they’re also valuable for other activities, including strategic planning, operational management and capital investment decisions.
Just like we do for stakeholder assessment, materialities can be positioned on a matrix and compared to one another based on how important they are to business stakeholders (including customers) and how much value they can create for the business itself. Examples include: access to energy, communications with stakeholders, transparency, financial stability, environment protection, sustainable development, HSE, etc.
Outtakes from some of the discussions I found most inspiring
Jorge Laguna-Celis, Director of UN Environment, pointed out that SDGs are not about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), rather they are about the survival of business in the long term. Taking a lifecycle approach allows companies to create more profits and more jobs, but requires that companies measure what they do – and they must report on those measures.
Tim Mohin of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) said that sustainability reports are not enough for decision making. These reports which are sometimes long on nice pictures, glossy paper and words, need to become more consistent, comparable, and concise. They also need to look forward rather than just reflect on what’s behind us.
Martino Scabbia Guerrini from VF Corporation believes successful companies follow both the global agenda and consumer needs. Consumers want to know the values and purpose behind a brand. He suggested that corporations should be afraid of not changing, should keep it simple, and make their evolution part of a narrative constantly communicated to the outside world.
Simon Boas Hoffmeyer spoke about the Carlsberg Group’s efforts to reduce impacts across the entire value chain, from agriculture to the refrigeration of consumer products. This company is going all-in on sustainability and wants to influence others to the top, and yet was humble enough to expose some challenges to the attendees.
Daniel Weston of Nestlé Nespresso SA brought in the concept of circular economies, reminding everyone that its business depends on sustainable farms in coffee producing countries as well as legislation and recycling facilities where their products are consumed, and that being responsible must be baked into their business model and into their offer to consumers.
- Those they can drive towards a strong potential positive impact
- Those they can influence without being in the driver seat
- Those they can only try to mitigate
Such insights on sustainability priorities provide a welcome guide for many organizations.
Nokia has transformed itself many times in its 153 years of operations. Minna Aila, Nokia’s Vice President, Corporate Affairs spoke of today’s pace of change and said that we are entering a post- transparency and post-compliance era. We can’t read and understand everything today given the amount of information available, so we need to rely on people and companies we can trust. Companies need to have long term goals and they must still tackle short term “storms” arising in social media and news outlets along the way.
The Mars family business thinks in terms of generations and is responsible across its supply chain to keep its impacts on land flat through efficiency – waste, water management, and sustainability certifications. Juan Martin, Mars Europe’s President of Multisales, shared the challenge of measuring social impacts on communities (employment, environment protection, advocating for governmental support of communities). To bring narratives from the production fields up to senior management, you need good local engagement processes and efficient internal communication channels.
The last project that caught my attention was Van de Sant, a start-up based out of the Netherlands. In an effort to conquer our (massive) issue with plastic waste in our oceans, they aim at developing a whole new economy around it. First by removing plastic from our water bodies, then to recycle it into new material that can be used in for their high-end outdoor furniture, rather than producing plastic from scratch. A full lifecycle, and beyond.
There were also a few interesting discussions on big data, and it seems even though it has tremendous potential, it cannot be as rich as months or years of face-to-face conversations between key stakeholder groups and companies. A lot of communications happen behind closed doors, therefore they are not publicly available. You can’t really escape the real hard trench work, somehow. Big data is a powerful resource to assist activities, but not all your organization’s knowledge / risks / opportunities are documented somewhere on the web. Bottom line is: there is no one better placed than a business to understand its business.
I hope these nuggets provide some small inspiration and thoughts about how your organization can embed the SDGs. Together, taking small steps, all of us can truly make a huge difference.
At Boréalis, we’ve been committed since day one to help improve social and environmental issues by helping companies putting into action best practices and processes, beyond philanthropy and sustainable reporting. Need a little help planning your SDG-aligned activities, don’t hesitate to reach out, we’d be happy to hear about your project.