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What we need to change to get business action on the SDGs

The CEO of CIVICUS touts the shared responsibility and accountability needed to achieve the U.N.'s audacious goals.

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.

It is really important to ask ourselves what businesses can do for the SDGs, but also to remember to ask what the SDGs can do for business.

A lot of the conversation since the release of the SDGs has been rightly about businesses living up to the aspiration of the SDGs. What can they do to deliver on that vision? But actually, we have to think about using the SDGs as a framework to guide the way we think about sustainable development and who is responsible for what.

Part of the reason we have not moved on to a clearer vision of what each sectors’ role in sustainable development lies in the fact that the SDGs are thought of as a voluntary soft vision, something "touchy-feely," that progressive businesses might want to pay some attention to. But in fact the only chance we have of achieving this vision is to make it a much more robust, almost enforceable framework for all of us to change our behavior.

What must business leaders do to prevent the SDGs from becoming just another 'tick-box' exercise buried in an index at the end of a sustainability report?

The first step is to make sure that businesses go beyond simply putting together another reporting framework, where they list what they are doing and retrofit that with the SDGs. They need to start exploring how to change their entire business model to one aimed at achieving sustainable development.

One important aspect of the SDGs is that they really question the growth fetish that we have been so obsessed with in recent decades. We have built the entire global economy on pursuing greater output at all cost. The whole system is built around this premise of valuing businesses on their outputs and profits.

We can no longer just think about increasing global output; it has to be about how we are distributing our output while minimizing our environmental footprint.

The SDGs point to a different way of thinking about sustainable development. We can no longer just think about increasing global output; it has to be about how we are distributing our output while minimizing our environmental footprint. If all the SDGs do is encourage businesses to report their CSR without changing business factors around their sustainability in particular, then we are lost.

For me, the SDGs are about shared responsibility. It is not just about what governments should be doing to achieve these goals, but how all stakeholders change their practices and behaviors in serious and high impact ways.

If we want to move beyond 'business as usual,' what type of leadership do we need to see in business?

I think firstly more businesses need to understand the potential of the SDGs. I often joke about the disease I call "Polmanitis," which refers to wonderful Paul Polman, who is about the only senior business leader I have seen who seems to get the potential of the SDGs. But we need hundreds, if not thousands, of Paul Polman-like leaders who understand that the SDGs are an opportunity as well as a responsibility to change the way things work.

Next, we need to start getting serious about accountability. For business this means pushing the government and other stakeholders to live up to their commitments. It is not only about businesses changing their behavior, but also building new ways of holding each other accountable. One of my fears about the SDGs is that because of the way they are written, it is very difficult to see how we should hold different actors accountable for these commitments.

We really need progressive business leaders to show what they are planning to do and how they will be held to account on achieving that vision. The SDGs themselves are too broad, too universal and too global to get into specifics of how businesses should change their behaviors or operations. So it is important for progressive business leaders to set out their vision and commitments and then say, "Look, my job is on the line. I am committed to sustainable development and if I do not show enough progress towards it, then I need to go." That is the sort of accountability revolution we need to see around sustainable development.

One of the SDGs (17) focuses specifically on partnerships. Are there any new trends in terms of how corporates have engaged since the launch of the SDGs?

Perhaps it is too early; but I have yet to see meaningful new partnerships evolve. I do think that an aspiration towards meaningful partnerships, particularly between business, government and civil society, needs to be at the heart of the SDG agenda. It is not just about an occasional roundtable or sponsorship, it is about working together on what we all can do to achieve the aims of the SDGs.

It is about making the SDGs meaningful for each and every one of us.

I have seen small-scale examples. In fact, we did a small initiative to promote multi-stakeholder dialogue at a local level in 10 countries around the world where business, government and civil society leaders came together to talk about issues such as the environment and responsibility in the Niger Delta and achieving gender rights in Bangladesh. These are the local issues that are relevant to everyone, where everyone can play their part in improving them.

One of the particular stakeholder groups we are looking at in our research is millennials — those born between the early 1980s and 2000. Should business be engaging with this influential demographic on global issues?

I hope the SDGs will be seen as their mission statement for the next 15 years. I also hope my generation will see that it is our responsibility to achieve that mission. We have got ourselves into a mess when it comes to the environment, and I think there is a realization among millennials that we cannot carry on this way.

One of the great failures of the MDGs was that not enough people knew about them. This time around, we will be able to achieve the SDGs only if we have large groups of people who feel that this is their agenda. It is about making the SDGs meaningful for each and every one of us.

We should see the SDGs as another tool in our accountability toolbox and use this agenda for positive change. This means making the goals relevant to young people and getting them to embrace it as their agenda, too.

What inspires me about the SDGs is that it is the first time that the world has come together to set out a collective vision for a just and sustainable world. In previous attempts we have tried legal statements or conventions to establish a basic minimum. But the SDGs are a vision, a statement about where we want the world to be. And that is why it is important that everyone owns it and it is not seen as just a document owned only by the 193 leaders who signed it last year.

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