Sustainability is moving rapidly from the corporate sidelines into the mainstream. Faced with a future of uncertain energy costs, looming regulation on carbon emissions, concerns about access to raw materials and the availability of natural resources like water, companies all over the world are waking up to the reality that environmental sustainability is a key consideration. At the same time those same companies are coming under greater scrutiny about their role in society – as has been documented throughout this book.
As companies navigate this uncertain business landscape, communicating a cohesive vision of environmental and social sustainability will be crucial to win the trust and respect of customers, employees, shareholders, investors and the media. But how many in the communication and creative sectors really understand the issues that lie at the heart of sustainable business?
The answer is, not that many. So now is the time for the worlds of advertising, marketing, PR and corporate communication to get sustainability smart. Luckily, what once might have seemed a very arduous and technical education has been made much simpler with the widespread adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Formally adopted at the UN general assembly in September 2015 the 17 environmental and social goals provide a blueprint for sustainable growth for the business world. They make a priority issues such as eradicating poverty, providing everyone with equal opportunities for economic growth, erasing gender inequality and tackling climate change to name just four. The goals took two years to negotiate and have global governmental backing – all 193 UN nations agreed to adopt them. They are not legally binding but look set to influence international, national and regional regulations. For companies the goals will likely act as a de facto license to operate in many parts of the world.
The goals could also prove to be the most important bridge between the worlds of finance, sustainability and marketing/communications – not least because of their potential to fully integrate sustainability, business operations and financial reporting within companies.
Most business leaders already understand that sustainability concerns have a profound influence on their companies’ performance. The problem is that, up until now, they have lacked an effective framework to translate sustainability and other nonfinancial information into future financial performance.
In the past, these issues may have seemed removed from the calculations of everyday business partly because of a disconnect between financial and non-financial reporting (as explored in the last chapter). The SDGs offer a great opportunity to bridge that gap and create a holistic way of assessing a business – one that values a company’s role in the ecosystem where it operates and benchmarks it against the objectives being set by global society.
By helping the financial heart of the business understand the risks and opportunities associated with sustainability issues the SDGs will speed up the adoption and integration of sustainability into mainstream company planning and action. And when sustainability stops being considered a side-issue in companies you can also be sure that it will become a priority for marketing and communications – as it already is in a growing number of leading companies.
Ultimately the SDGs could yet become the lingua franca for all of the business to understand, plan, execute and communicate sustainable business. Before that can happen though, companies and employees will need a better understanding of the Global Goals and how they will impact their business and careers.
The Global Goal guide for business
Which of the global goals are most important for different companies? The simple answer is that all 17 should be a priority for all companies but, in reality, companies will focus on the ones they believe are most material for their operations and sustainable footprint.
The financial services sector will see goal 1 (Ending Poverty) and Goal 10 (Reducing Inequalities) as key areas where it can deliver expertise. Financial services also has an overarching role to in mobilising the finance needed (an estimated $3 to $4 trillion per year in public and private funds) for the goals to succeed.
The healthcare industry also has obvious responsibilities in supporting goal 3 (Health and Wellbeing), the food industry must play a supersized role in goal 2 (Ending Hunger) while the technology and industrial sectors have leadership roles to play in meeting goals 9 (Infrastructure) and 11 (Smart and Sustainable Cities).
Other goals however will require companies to have a more holistic and expansive vision of sustainability. Goal 14 (Life Below Water) for example isn’t just about the maritime and fishing industries. Every business that uses plastic packaging has a major impact on life under water given the millions of tonnes of plastic that is polluting our oceans – up to 80% of the plastic in the ocean is from land-based sources. It is a similar story with Goal 15, Life On Land.
This is an excerpt from Trust Inc. How Business Gains Respect in a Social Media Age by Matthew Yeomans.