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Sustainable Development Goals: Reconnecting businesses with society

By Joachim Marc Christensen, Project Coordinator of the Global Opportunity Network

This week the UN adopts what some regard as a wish list of overambitious goals. But the world community needs to be ambitious to spot the opportunities hiding within the Sustainable Development Goals. Opportunities that have the ability to reconnect businesses to society in a way that far supersedes glossy CSR reports.

When the UN recently celebrated its 70th year in existence, a number of critics suggested that 70 years was an appropriate age to retire. Undoubtedly, many regard the UN as an overly bureaucratic and complex organization, and it has also been blamed for painting with too broad a brush when putting together the new Sustainable Development Goals. An article in The Economist from March 28 this year labels the SDGs as “unfeasibly expensive” and points out that the 169 targets that fall under the 17 goals do not allow priority-setting as was possible with the Millennium Development Goals. Too many priorities mean that the UN cannot hold countries accountable for not living up to their promises. On the other hand, the SDGs is a collaborative agenda between public and private sector which leaves room for optimism as business is key to taking the necessary steps in the right direction.

The UN has certainly sketched a wondrous utopia to be reached in only 15 years, with aims such as eliminating hunger and gender inequality. But the SDGs also have the potential to reconnect businesses with society by redefining the concept of CSR.

The SDGs are opportunities
169 targets under 17 goals is a big mouthful. But the good news is that each one of them represent ripe business opportunities. When “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation” – a part of SDG #6 – is put on a global agenda, policies and aid money will be channeled in this direction, which enlarges existing markets and creates new ones for water technology and innovation. The need to manage water sustainably as a collective goal acts as a business incentive to redesign business practices in order to reduce water waste.

This year, we presented three opportunities in our Global Opportunity Report that dealt with the risk of lack of fresh water – a risk closely connected to SDG #6. One of them was fresh water production as a new sustainable market opportunity. Just within that narrow field we identified a plethora of entrepreneurs and innovators. The SDGs have the power to shape even more sustainable opportunities that create value for society, the planet and the bottom line.

Coca-Cola case: when big fish start stirring the pond
Due to pressure from consumers, the three Ps “people, planet and profit” are becoming general practice for most companies. A classic concept within CSR theory is “social license to operate,” which describes the legitimacy of a company in the eyes of the consumers. Businesses have to work harder today than previously to gain that license. This shift in mindset among consumers has caused some mega-corporations to start treating social and environmental factors as integral and necessary parts of their businesses instead of just mandatory “add-ons”.

The Coca-Cola Company is a good example of this. About a month ago, the company revealed that it would replenish 100% of the water used in its production by the end of the year – a goal that puts the beverage giant five years ahead of its original plans to go water neutral by 2020. The decision to return clean water to local communities wasn’t an idea dreamt by a bright-eyed Coca-Cola employee, but rather a decision following years of mounting dissatisfaction from locals, consumers and NGOs who have seen the company exhaust local water resources in small communities in the developing world. The company will benefit financially, as it can continue to produce locally without drying up their business, but a water-neutral Coca-Cola should also be regarded as a signal of a new level of corporate engagements in society.

The strategic decision by Coca-Cola to go water-neutral years before the SDGs, positions the company to be a front-runner of sustainable businesses. The company proves that new sustainable business opportunities are not reserved for courageous start-ups. New consumer demands and awareness make these opportunities attractive for everyone. The new SDGs suggest that global demands and awareness concerning sustainability will keep corporations within all industries on a short leash when it comes to business ethics, and businesses will increasingly start to reconnect to society –they simply have to.

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