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Aligning business to the U.N. Global Compact has benefits beyond the bottom line

This article is sponsored by BASF.

The United Nations Global Compact’s stated mission is "to mobilize a global movement of sustainable companies and stakeholders to create the world we want." A hallmark of its work is the thoughtful creation of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the U.N. in 2015. I can attest to the fact that these goals form a sound guidepost for our companies if we want to drive growth, profitability and customer acceptance.

BASF recently celebrated its 150th anniversary and as the company neared this historic milestone, we revised and launched our new purpose statement: "We create chemistry for a sustainable future." For 30 years I have been proud to be part of a company that’s evolving and always moving forward, getting better and making sustainability the central focus of who we are, what we are and what we do.

Some of my favorite work includes meeting with customers and partners and defining how best to meet their goals. We start by identifying their greatest challenges and work backwards to define the root problem. Then we create a solution using BASF’s vast knowledge of chemistry and innovation.

Focusing on solutions for our customers’ needs is not mutually exclusive from doing the right thing. BASF is fully committed to supporting the 17 U.N. SDGs and we weave them into the solutions we provide — using chemistry to solve the challenges of tomorrow. Take the automobile for example, our innovations make the exhaust cleaner, make the car lighter and more fuel efficient. And at the same time, we are developing battery materials that will allow electric vehicles to go farther between charges.

As a research-based company with over 10,000 chemists, we also support research that creates value for society and the environment. We form external partnerships to do this. For example, we funded the Sustainable Living Lab at Louisiana State University to promote problem-based learning and research that focuses on sustainable solutions to global challenges. The researcher in residence at the lab developed a new water purification technology that has the potential to provide safe drinking water to nearly 1 billion people in developing countries where conventional disinfection methods are not feasible.

Sustainability is an ongoing journey for us. It requires listening to not only our customers, but to other external partners — communities, NGOs and regulators. Not only is this the right focus, it’s a profitable one. We are finding that our customers are looking for sustainable solutions because their customers and consumers are very connected to global and social issues and they are demanding answers. The answers can be found in the roadmap formed by the U.N. SDGs.

Sustainability requires listening to not only our customers, but to other external partners — communities, NGOs and regulators.
Taken together, the 17 SDGs include 169 targets and 304 indicators to measure compliance. It can seem rather overwhelming. If we try to address all 17 goals at once, we’re not going to accomplish any single one of them well. I advise picking the top two or three that are meaningful for a particular situation and work it through that way. For example, when I talk with Better Business Bureaus, I ask, "What are you doing to train people? Are you educating students about the benefits of careers in the trades?" Workforce development to address the shortage of skilled workers is an area of particular concern for business in the United States. And by the way, workforce development covers SDGs 1 – No Poverty, 4 – Quality Education and 8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth. So, it’s important to align on the SDGs that are relevant to each specific situation.

Many companies approach sustainability by focusing on certain aspects, such as their product value chains, and examine them from A to Z in a very linear and internal way. By shifting that focus to be more circular, we can engage external stakeholders and build partnerships to drive innovation, sustainability and profitable growth while also bringing value to society. The SDGs are a guidepost to help us along that journey.

Teressa Szelest is president, market and business development for BASF in North America. She recently accepted the U.N. Global Compact SDG Pioneer recognition for innovative solutions driving sustainable water and climate action on behalf of the company.

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