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Novo Nordisk: Our take on the Sustainable Development Goals

How companies approach the SDGs is critical. Here's how one business is moving forward.

The world adopted what will become the new global job description last week. The list of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will impact the way we do policy and business.

Global Opportunity Network asked Novo Nordisk, a Danish-based global healthcare company with more than 90 years of innovation and leadership in diabetes care, about what the SDGs means to its work and how they may represent an opportunity.

We sat down with Susanne Stormer, vice president of corporate sustainability and chief sustainability officer at Novo Nordisk.

Do the SDGs = more reporting?

Novo Nordisk was a first-mover when it came to dropping production of an annual sustainability report and instead fully integrating sustainability into the company’s annual report. According to Stormer, the company has not regretted this decision for a moment.

"Over my dead body" was Stormer's response to whether Novo Nordisk would revert to creating a stand-alone annual sustainability report. Instead, reporting on progress with regards to adopting the SDGs will find its place as an integrated part of the company’s future reporting strategy.

The 17 goals are interconnected, and all of them are relevant for any business to consider.

It’s not as if Novo Nordisk isn’t capable of creating world class reports. Stormer’s comment came a day after Novo Nordisk was recognized with awards for "Best Integrated Report" and "Best Annual Report" in Denmark.

It’s fair to say that Novo Nordisk’s efforts will not be focused on reporting on the SDGs in the coming 15 years, but rather on taking action. The company is prepared to use the SDGs as a compass and integrate them into its current and future business activities.

"The 17 goals are interconnected, and all of them are relevant for any business to consider. Companies shouldn’t necessarily throw equal resources behind their commitments to each of the SDGs, but I would suggest that they consider how their business activities may contribute to achieving the global goals," Stormer said.

“For example, SDG No. 6 related to water is not where we have our core competencies but we do use fresh water to produce our products, so we need to think about how we can use it most sustainably.”

SDGs will drive policy and expand markets

One key difference between the SDGs (which the United Nations approved last week) and the millennium development goals (which the U.N. approved in 2000) is that business has been involved in developing the SDGs.

Nevertheless, Stormer believes that "the SDGs will have to be policy drivers. Businesses have a role in realizing these goals, but it will have to be a government priority first and foremost." Stormer expects each country will have its own action plan to contribute to sustainable development through the SDGs.

When you are a global company with affiliates in 75 countries and sales in 180 countries, the adoption of the SDGs will not as such create new markets. That said, the inclusion of non-communicable diseases in SDG No. 3 represents a huge opportunity for Novo Nordisk to reach out to more people who need diabetes care.

"SDG No. 3 can open markets for us if public policy priorities and development aid will go to addressing NCDs (non-communicable diseases) including diabetes, as we think it should. The epidemic rise in diabetes has become a major barrier to sustainable development and presents huge personal and societal costs if left unaddressed. We are already present everywhere diabetes is," Stormer said.

"SDG No. 3 is hopefully going to make it easier for us to access decision makers with the message that they need to do something about diabetes,” she added. It is estimated that only half of those who have diabetes know they have it, and timely diagnosis is the first step in providing proper treatment and care so that the condition can be managed. Novo Nordisk expects that the SDGs will help raise attention to the problems and lead to more people being diagnosed with diabetes and provided treatment.

SDG No. 17: Partnerships

SDG No. 17 recommends the use of partnerships as a means of supporting the other 16 goals. When considering whether to enter into a strategic partnership, Stormer looks for situations "where each partner brings its core competence and works towards a shared goal," and refers to the need to move from transactional to transformational partnerships.

"Transactional partnerships," Stormer explained, "are the kind where companies are expected to contribute with funding for projects, executed by organizations such as NGOs or ministries of health." A transformational partnership, in turn, is one where the parties each invests — whether money, expertise or both — to realize a shared goal.

Novo Nordisk’s new partnership initiative, Cities Changing Diabetes, is an example of a transformational partnership that it believes will have greater impact and sustainable results. 

Can social businesses earn profits?

We concluded our conversation with Stormer by discussing social businesses and the belief held by many that large corporation and social businesses are oxymorons.

Stormer doesn’t agree. "I would argue that Novo Nordisk has a very clear social purpose, namely to help people with diabetes and other chronic conditions to live their life to the full. To do so, we provide them with medicines, but we know that it takes more than medicines and that is why we are engaged in driving change for the benefit of these people," she said.

"This is why we are in business, and remains the focus for our business. Does that make us a social business? I would say yes. Some make a distinction that a social business is not supposed to operate with a profit. If a business doesn’t earn a profit, then how is it supposed to be a sustainable business? We are a profit-generating business because we need the profit to generate more of what we do in pursuit of our social purpose."

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