Business Engagement in SDGs Follow up and Review: Lessons Learned after Three HLPFs, Preparing for 2019
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Many governments recognize that to make progress on the Global Goals, they must create enabling conditions for business to realize their potential and contribute.

Perhaps with this in mind, consulting the private sector for the review process has become the norm for countries presenting their VNR, with 94% doing so in 2018.

However, the information included has been mostly anecdotal; the solution is data.

The 2018 session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) reflected business’ increasing engagement in the 2030 Agenda, which is part of a trend of increased engagement in sustainability taking place over the last decade. Those who attended the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (Rio+20) will remember that the private sector was present, but gathered at a parallel forum known as ‘Business Day’ across town from the conference. The presence of businesses was unprecedented, but the modalities of engagement did not allow for true collaboration.

Only three years later, at the UN Sustainable Development Summit, where the 2030 Agenda and SDGs were adopted, it had become clear that business participation in the sustainable development dialogue was integral, and their voices were heard in every stage of the process leading to the adoption of the Global Goals. Bringing together all actors allowed for the SDGs to become the common language and shared purpose for the sustainability agenda of our time.

As we move ahead with implementing the agenda, a well-functioning follow-up and review mechanism is crucial. The HLPF is the designated global venue for that, focusing on assessing progress, pointing out achievements and recognizing challenges. The Forum features a yearly set of voluntary national reviews (VNRs) to showcase progress on a country level, which are presented by the national government.

In 2018, 94% of the governments presenting a VNR consulted with the private sector in their countries.

Many governments recognize that to make progress on the Global Goals, they must create enabling conditions for business to realize their own potential, in turn, and contribute. Perhaps with this in mind, consulting the private sector for the review process has become the norm for countries presenting their VNR, with 85% of reporting countries doing so in 2016 and 94% doing so in 2018. However, the information included is mostly anecdotal, based on dialogues and ad hoc projects organized with business and business associations at national level to facilitate action and integrate lessons learned.

So how can we ensure that business’ involvement in the SDGs on the ground becomes an integral part of the follow-up and review mechanism? The solution is data. Simply put, what gets measured gets managed, so it is important to draw on private sector SDG-related data. In order to make such data available, governments can encourage companies to disclose their sustainability information, as called for in SDG target 12.6. Information disclosed through corporate sustainability reporting can be used to assess business contribution and impacts on sustainable development, and thus, the SDGs. A 2017 inventory produced by GRI in collaboration with the UN Global Compact identifies disclosure options for companies to demonstrate their impacts at the SDG target level. (The implementation of this target is being monitored through GRI’s SDG 12.6 live tracker.)

More governments are realizing the value of corporate social responsibility and sustainability reporting: the number of VNR reports that mentioned it has increased from 11 in 2016 to 27 in 2018. One country has gone a step further, unlocking the potential of the corporate SDGs-related data disclosed through sustainability reporting. Presenting its second VNR at the 2018 HLPF, the government of Colombia used corporate sustainability data provided by Colombian companies to assess business contribution and impacts on key topics. This was the first time a government has used business data issued through sustainability reporting and aggregated it at national level to inform its VNR.

This project was led by Colombia’s planning department, the Departamento Nacional de Planeación (DNP), in collaboration with the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) Business Call to Action (BCtA), with technical support from GRI. It offered the opportunity to assess private sector contribution to the SDGs at national level, provided an innovative way to unlock the potential of non-official statistical data and enrich the review of progress on the SDGs, enabling the participation of corporates, business associations, civil society and other stakeholders. The results were captured in The Private Sector and its Contribution to the SDGs: A Journey to Data Gathering Trough Corporate Sustainability Reporting in Colombia and fed into the 2018 Reporte Nacional Voluntario presented by the Government of Colombia at the 2018 High Level Political Forum in New York (see chapter 7.2.2 Contribución Del Sector Privado, page 80).

While the largest companies in the world have already made sustainability reporting “business as usual,” and governments are acknowledging its potential, the integration of SDGs in corporate reporting has not yet become mainstream. According to a KPMG 2017 survey, only 43% of the Global Fortune 250 companies that report on their corporate responsibility link these activities to the SDGs. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development found a similar trend: 79% of their members acknowledge the SDGs, but only 6% align to specific SDG targets and measure their contribution.

Clearly, there is room for improvement. In order to ensure meaningful and robust follow-up and review at future sessions of the HLPF, it is essential to scale up corporate engagement and reporting on the SDGs. To help realize this need, GRI and the UN Global Compact established the Business Reporting on the SDGs Action Platform in 2017, and in August 2018 released a practical guide to help companies integrate the SDGs into their reporting.

Looking back at Rio+20, the collaboration between business and governments has taken leaps forward. But in order to achieve the Global Goals, we need move from the current level of engagement to integrating business’ contributions and impacts in the VNRs. HLPF 2019 will offer the opportunity to review both the implementation of the SDGs and the modalities for its follow up and review. It will represent a great opportunity to benefit from lessons learned in the first cycles of the HLPF: The lessons learned in Colombia can be replicated in other countries as well, and GRI is ready to engage with other like-minded governments and national statistical offices.

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