Why BASF, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Colgate-Palmolive view the SDGs as an innovation catalyst

SDG strategy, GreenBiz 20
Flash Gordon Murray, Pixel PhotoVideo
The GreenBiz 20 tutorial panel on strategy included (from left): Linden Edgell, ERM; Freya Williams, Futerra; Mitchell Toomey, BASF; Devin Giles, International Paper; Christie Constantine, Baker McKenzie; and moderator Myriam Merchan, World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

In the five years since the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were adopted, many large companies have paid them substantial lip service — declaring support for specific subsets and drawing creative, often detailed maps that demonstrate how certain pieces of the social agenda dovetail with their own larger sustainability and corporate social responsibility goals.

The 2020 reality is that field-level action is lagging. No country is on track to meet the milestones set out by the U.N. at launch, and only 25 percent of companies have set goals that are "sufficiently bold enough" to achieve the 2030 ambitions, said Claire Kells, senior management of corporate engagement with the U.N. Global Compact, during an SDG-themed tutorial two weeks ago at GreenBiz 20.

To put it more specifically, even though almost all CEOs believe the Global Goals (as the SDGs sometimes are known) could present an opportunity for their organizations, only 48 percent actually are doing anything about them, according to a survey published in September by Accenture.

"It’s a real moment to take stock, and say, ‘What more can we do?’" Kells told the standing-room-only audience.

During the World Economic Forum in January, the U.N. Global Compact — self-described as the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative with more than 10,000 signatories — declared the next 10 years as the "Decade of Action" for the SDGs.

To step things up, the organization is mobilizing networks around the world to motivate far more corporate engagement, and multiple at-capacity sessions during GreenBiz 20 were focused on doing just that. It is also preparing a flood of resources to help companies manage that process, including an accelerator program for young entrepreneurs with SDG-related innovation ideas and the newly launched SDG Action Manager, a free web-based tool co-developed by the U.N. Global Compact and B Lab Global that helps sustainability teams track progress toward all 169 of the specific SDG targets more methodically.

The resource is meant to be used alongside a "good materiality analysis," said Laura Palmeiro, a senior advisor to the U.N. Global Compact, who previously was the sustainability integration director at Danone. "This does not replace a good impact assessment," she said.

UN Global Compact, GreenBiz 20
Joel Makower
An overflow crowd watches a demo of the new SDG Action Manager, a tool for tracking commitments related to the Sustainable Development Goals.

A catalyst for innovation

One way some large companies have successfully embedded support for the SDGs into their operating ethos has been by tying existing processes to certain SDG targets.

Law firm Baker McKenzie conducted more than 1,400 interviews with external and internal stakeholder to prioritize its focus (PDF) on goals No. 5 (Gender Equality), No. 7 (Affordable ad Clean Energy), No. 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), No. 10 (Reduced Inequalities), No. 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), No. 13 (Climate Action), and No. 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions).

"One of our biggest challenges was getting people to understand that a services company could be impacted by this," noted Christie Constantine, global director of sustainability for the law firm. As of last year, however, every employee has a key performance indicator linked to one of the goals. "It’s about connecting them with things we know are priorities for our business."

Victoria Emerick, director of global environmental, health, safety and sustainability at Bristol-Myers Squibb, said the pharmaceutical company began reporting on activities related to No. 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) shortly after the SDGs were adopted in 2015.

Emerick said Bristol-Myers’ support of the SDGs has transformed the ideation process, pointing to the example of a new program related to mental wellness and how it was transformed by asking different questions of stakeholders than in the past. "It’s not costing us anything to drive these changes ... But this new thinking is bringing an immense return on our investment," she said.  

The most demonstrable evidence lies in the level of engagement the company is seeing across its people and business resource groups, which were evolved after the SDGs were adopted. Emerick said more than 70 percent of Bristol-Myers’ employees belong to at least one of these networks, which represent communities that previously might have been excluded from engagement on the basis of gender, ethnicity or disability.

The company’s focus on SDGs led directly to its adoption of an anti-human trafficking policy (PDF) that applies to its trucking and shipping partners, Emerick said. "Now we’re in a position where we’re looking at the targets related to the goals as we develop our programs and goals," she said.

Colgate-Palmolive, vegan, toothpaste, recyclable tube
Colgate-Palmolive
Colgate-Palmolive introduced vegan toothpaste in a recyclable tube in November 2019.

For Colgate-Palmolive, the SDG directive on Responsible Consumption and Production shook up the company’s approach to developing toothpaste — the company introduced the first vegan toothpaste, shipped in a recyclable tube in late 2019. Suffice to say, almost all traditional containers wind up in landfills, a reality that was at odds with the SDGs, said Sonay Aykan, manager of global sustainability at Colgate-Palmolive.

"We’re learning to look at the right problem statements," Aykan said.

It takes an industry, collaboration

Just as intriguing as Colgate's first-of-a-kind product introduction is the consumer products company’s decision to share the technology behind the package with competitors so that they can also take action on a particularly egregious form of plastic packaging.

"If we can standardize recyclable tubes among all companies, we all win," said Colgate-Palmolive CEO Noel Wallace in a statement.

Indeed, one theme that emerged during all of the SDG sessions at GreenBiz 20 was the need for rivals across industry sectors to work together in the interest of faster change. "Some of the challenges that we need to solve are sector-level challenges and in the value chain," said Linden Edgell, global sustainability director at sustainability services firm ERM. "Unless an entire group applies pressure, they won’t get the change in the time we need to make a difference."

That sentiment was echoed by Mitchell Toomey, director of sustainability at BASF, citing the various alliances that have come together to address the plastic waste problem. Few companies are willing to step forward on their own to remake a market for "molecules that are infinitely reusable," nor should any one player use this particular challenge as a competitive advantage.

"You can’t have one actor come up with the solution," Toomey said. "The selfish motivations of one company aren’t going to be the right approach."