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Business action on the SDGs: Insights from GSK

The British pharmaceutical giant opens up about its sustainability agenda.

This article originally appeared at Corporate Citizenship  the first in its "Leader Insights Series: Business Action on the Sustainable Development Goals," written by leaders from across industries and sectors. The full series will appear here.

In this installment, Priya Madina, director of government affairs and global issues at pharmaceutical company GSK, shares how the business is eyeing implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Mike Tuffrey: What do you think is the role of business in contributing to the SDGs?

Priya Madina: Funding is a key issue in implementing the SDGs. The role that business will play in funding the SDGs has been acknowledged by the OECD in its recently launched Annual Development Cooperation report. This estimates that some $2.42 trillion of finance for the SDGs will come from the private sector.

The majority of this is likely to come from businesses aligning their activities and investment decisions to the SDGs. There will need to be greater awareness of the SDGs and concern for their success amongst customers and society for this to become the norm. In this, governments have a vital role to play in raising awareness of the importance of the SDGs, and this is especially true for SMEs.

But businesses must not stop at funding. They must build a real initiative around the goals they are aiming to achieve by being proactive, determined and outcome-focused.

Finally, businesses are key in driving innovation, which has a central role to play in meeting the SDGs. We need to think more creatively and flexibly now we have a wide-ranging agenda covering such a broad range of issues. New creative solutions and partnerships help unlock potential and deliver more — one-size-fits-all solutions won’t work.

We will also need new tools and interventions if we are to meet the SDGs by 2030. Each sector can bring different expertise to the process, and we all must start thinking innovatively in terms of the way we operate.

Tuffrey: One year since their launch, what kind of an impact have you seen the SDGs having in the business world and on your business priorities in particular?

Madina: There has been progress, as many global companies are now incorporating the SDGs into their business plans; but there needs to be more active engagement and focus around them. We need more pull and demand from society and consumers before the vast majority of companies will consider the SDGs as important to their business priorities. For example, at the moment it is unlikely that an on-pack promotion related to the SDGs would be seen as valuable to companies. This is because there just is not enough "brand value" in the SDGs among consumers. Raising awareness among the general public about the SDGs will be key.

At GSK, our work naturally aligns with the SDGs. As a healthcare company, our main focus is having an impact on Goal 3 on health, although our impact is wider in scope. However, we are not limiting ourselves to contributing solely to the implementation of this particular goal. Our priorities are now to make sure our business actions continue to align with the implementation of the goals, and to raise awareness about the SDGs themselves. Much of our work in the global health arena — such as strengthening healthcare infrastructure, fighting malaria, improving access to antiretroviral treatment for HIV, working to help prevent child deaths and tackling non-communicable diseases — all contributes to the SDGs.

Tuffrey: How can companies prevent the SDGs from becoming just another "tick-box" index buried at the end of their sustainability reports?

Madina: Many companies in a wide range of sectors have been looking at how they can harness their resources to contribute towards wider society, and often this work contributes to and is aligned with the SDGs.

As a global healthcare company, our commercial success depends on creating innovative new medicines, vaccines and healthcare products, and making these accessible to as many people who need them as possible. By doing this, we will be able to grow our business and provide benefits to patients, consumers, society, our employees and shareholders. Operating responsibly, therefore, is fundamental to how we do business and not a separate piece of work or project.

As well as embedding responsible business practice into the business as a whole, another way to contribute to the SDGs in a proactive way is through more partnerships. Today’s challenges cannot be effectively addressed by unilateral action. The business and development community must interact and share its knowledge and ideas to drive innovation. This ultimately leads to more efficiency as well as greater commitment to the project’s success.

Tuffrey: Who, or what departments, within your business is talking about the SDGs, and what are they saying?

Madina: As a healthcare company, clearly our main contribution is focused on the health goal. Our scientists are already helping to address the goal through, for example, researching malaria and maternal health. Our environment team are also excited about the opportunities surrounding Goal 13 on climate change; and our work on business integrity is a clear opportunity to further explore Goal 16 on peace and justice.

Our government affairs team also support on the goals by exploring how to help governments achieve Universal Health Coverage, which is called out as one of the targets within Goal 3.

Tuffrey: If we want to move beyond "business as usual" in order to achieve the SDGs, what type of leadership do we need to see in business?

Madina: Strong global leadership is also key to achieving the SDGs. Within businesses, not all teams are aware of the Global Goals or how to work with them effectively to generate the most sustainable impact. To integrate "SDG thinking" into the business, leaders need to recognize and articulate that corporate strategy and decision-making are informed by the ecosystem in which a business operates.

At GSK, we are fortunate to have the kind of leadership that recognizes the societal changes we face, including population growth, global warming, long-term economic growth in developing countries and continued poverty — and recognizes the role that business has to play in addressing some of these pressures.

Clear leadership and coordination are also key to successful partnerships to tackle the SDGs. Partnerships work best when the common objectives are clear and agreed upfront, and the roles and responsibilities are well defined. The GSK partnership with Save the Children is an example of a successful partnership, where business can provide knowledge and capability in a particular discipline and the charity can provide expertise and on-the-ground knowledge about the target community and its needs.

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