26 July 2018
Chief Sustainability Officers Exchange Lessons on Transforming Businesses
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The World Business Council for Sustainable Development organized a half-day event in the margins of the 2018 HLPF on how businesses can accelerate transformation towards the SDGs.

Four panels discussed topics on integrating the SDGs into business operations; human rights; partnerships and investment towards the Goals.

Among other insights, a participant underscored that "the SDGs exist because the market fails".

18 July 2018: A half-day event hosted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in the margins of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) explored how businesses can accelerate “systems transformation.”

Featuring four panels consisting primarily of chief sustainability officers, the event titled, ‘Business and the SDGs – Accelerating Transformation: Insights from Chief Sustainability Officers & Sustainability Champions,’ addressed how companies are integrating the SDGs into operations, human rights, partnerships and investment towards the Goals.

Opening remarks by Liu Zhenmin, Head of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), noted that businesses today operate in a geopolitical context that leaves much to be desired. Filippo Veglio, WBCSD, articulated the role of businesses in achieving the SDGs as: an engine of employment; a developer of technology and innovation; and a source of finance. Veglio described the implications of the SDGs for businesses, recalling the CEO Guide to the SDGs and SDG Compass, and highlighted the results of a joint survey of WBCSD members conducted with DNV GL.

In a panel on strategic integration of the SDGs into business practices, panelists highlighted challenges and solutions regarding the complexity of the SDGs and opportunities for impact. Approaches their companies have taken include “retrofitting” existing strategies to fit the SDGs, changing corporate governance structures and launching new sustainability initiatives. One difficulty, they noted, has been balancing the possible tension between generating short-term returns and creating long-term shared value. Doing so demands winning buy-in both internally and externally. Participants reported that they have had to engage buyers and other stakeholders as well as senior management teams and CEOs. Panelists also emphasized the importance of robust measurements and key performance indicators (KPIs), which, they noted, can not only demonstrate a company’s impact, but also align multiple levels of internal management.

Businesses are comfortable with labor rights, but are realizing they need to go further on freedom of expression, privacy, nutrition and housing.

Another panel addressed corporate respect for human rights as a key vehicle through which business can contribute to sustainable development. Moderated by Caroline Rees, President and Co-founder of Shift, the discussion articulated how large companies work to uphold human rights throughout their operations and supply chains. Rees outlined the current state of play, noting that businesses are comfortable with labor rights, but are realizing the need to go further on others such as freedom of expression, privacy, nutrition and housing. Describing the three pillars of the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights, she noted a recent mapping of human rights to the SDGs, and flagged a new Shift report that features 15 case studies on the human rights opportunity for business, linked to the SDGs.

Participants took the discussion further, noting that human rights go beyond SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth). Andrew Petersen, Sustainable Business Australia (SBA), flagged that SDGs 5 (gender equality) and 10 (reduced inequalities) hit closest to home for SBA’s membership. Tony Henshaw, Aditya Birla Group, said that after the Group signed the WASH Pledge, it realized they needed to do more in the area of water, sanitation and hygiene: “we were 600 bathrooms short.” Tim Fleming, AT&T, noted the enabling power of technology in improving outcomes towards the SDGs, flagging a new Digital Access Index. Panelists also lamented that working across supply chains is difficult, but noted the importance of strict supplier programmes and WBCSD’s Reporting Matters work.

A third panel, on ‘Business as Unusual,’ described how companies can utilize the SDGs to pioneer new forms of collaboration, both at sector- and system-level. Moderator Andrew Wilson, International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), argued that the notion of partnerships is overused, and that the private sector partners “for impact.” Unpacking key factors that enable success, participants identified similar characteristics, topics and skills as those which emerged from the HLPF’s Partnership Exchange, including: embracing diversity and differences; simplifying language for communicating between private sector, academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media; the ability to build trust; ensuring all stakeholders are present; and the benefits of complementary skill sets to be gained from having partners. Arne Cartridge, Yara International, offered lessons around local ownership aligned with country goals, openness and inclusivity, and a market-driven approach. Michelle Grogg, Cargill, stressed the need for clarity on what partners aim to do together, scalability of projects, a long-term approach, and the need to be innovative, taking risks that go beyond business as usual.

Dominique Debecker, Solvay, described how industries can come together, including through the use of sector roadmaps. These can enhance companies’ license to operate, help them manage risk, and open up new growth markets while setting a common vision, mapping impact on the SDGs, and identifying actions that can be taken in partnership with wider stakeholder groups. Debecker highlighted the release of WBCSD’s Chemical Sector SDG Roadmap, which resulted from multiple workshops involving numerous companies and stakeholders from the industry.

The final panel addressed investor engagement, and how to effectively measure and communicate SDG performance in the face of increasing investor scrutiny. Steve Waygood, Aviva Plc, indicated that failing to deal with SDGs collectively would mean the folding of his business, including because current climate change scenarios represent an existential crisis for the insurance industry. He argued that the “SDGs exist because the market fails”; in other words, if it were already possible to earn money delivering the Goals, governments would not have had to establish the Goals. Bearing this in mind, Waygood stressed that investors do not currently look at how corporates perform on the SDGs because they are externalities, affecting neither companies’ costs nor their revenues. He articulated the need for government-led fiscal measures, market mechanisms, and standards to restructure markets, and noted the work of the World Benchmarking Alliance in addition to recent toolkits. The good news, he added, is that investor interest is rapidly increasing.

Timothy Mohin, Chief Executive, Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), built on Waygood’s remarks, noting that reporting has been growing, and there is increasing interest from Wall Street in their data. He highlighted a new report titled, ‘In Focus: Addressing Investor Needs in Business Reporting on the SDGs.’ Launched with the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and UN Global Compact, the report, he noted, articulates the relevance of the SDGs and the need for a methodology that allows investors to differentiate companies based on their systems for approaching the Goals.

Libby Bernick, Trucost (part of S&P Global), rounded out the panel by underscoring the need for quantitative data. She noted that Trucost is developing a quantitative approach to overlay the SDGs and economic models, and that the rate of change on environmental, social and governance (ESG) investments is increasing. [Side Event Agenda] [SDG Knowledge Hub sources]

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