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The Triple Bottom Line Case for the U.N.’s New Sustainable Development Goals

UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

This weekend, United Nations member states will adopt a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the three-day UN Sustainable Development Summit. The new goals replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adopted in 2000 and expire this year.

While the MDGs mainly dealt with health, education and poverty in the world’s poorest nations, the SDGs deal with those topics but add other issues environmental, gender inequality, and access to clean water. What about business and the SDGs? Is there a triple bottom line (3BL) case to be made for the SDGs? Let's take a closer look at each goal to find out. 

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the triple bottom line

1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

There are startling facts about global extreme poverty rates. While it is has reduced by over half since 1990, one in five people in developing countries still live on less than $1.25 a day. Businesses can play a role in reducing extreme poverty rates by creating jobs and boosting the economy.

2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

There are an estimated 795 million people hungry globally, that’s one in nine people. Most of the world’s hungry live in developing countries. A 2012 WorldWatch blog post chronicled five companies that are reducing hunger,  including PepsiCo.

PepsiCo has been a partner of the UN World Food Program since 2008. In 2011, the company committed to developing market-based solutions to food and nutritional insecurity in Ethiopia. As part of this commitment, PepsiCo committed $3.5 million to WFP to develop a locally sourced, chickpea product geared for malnourished children.

PepsiCo also helps reduce hunger in the U.S. For that aim, it partners with Feed the Children. There are two recent examples of its partnership with the organization. The latest one occurred in Chicago where the company helped provide food to 800 families in need. In August, the company partnered with Feed the Children in Detroit to help provide food for 1,600 families in need.

3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

Many pharmaceutical companies are multi-national. Progress in areas like reducing tuberculosis, polio and HIV/AIDS is being made by companies in partnership with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Take Gavi, an NGO with the goal of making vaccines more affordable for low-income countries through expanding suppliers to include developing country manufacturers.

4. Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.

Education is the backbone of any society. Although progress has been made globally to increase access to education, 57 million children are still out of school. Many of those children may be future doctors, lawyers, scientists, and entrepreneurs.

5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

The head of many households around the world are women. When businesses help girls and women have equal access to education, work and health care they not only create future customers but future entrepreneurs. In developing countries, there are an estimated eight to 10 million small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with at least one female owner, according to the World Bank.

6. Ensure access to water and sanitation for all.

Water is necessary to live, and it is a necessary part of many, if not most businesses. When it comes to providing access to clean drinking water in developing countries, one company readily comes to mind. That is Unilever.

Unilever uses its personal hygiene brands to increase access to clean drinking water, including Pureit which has provided clean drinking water to 55 million people. Pureit water filtration systems remove contaminants in drinking water. Since 80 percent of diseases in the developing world are water related, Pureit helps save lives. Pureit partners with PSI and a local microfinance institute to provide access to its purifiers in installment payments.

7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

Our current way of life depends on energy, and every business depends on energy to keep running. Consider the first thing you do when walking into any room: turn on the lights. Increasing the use of clean power to provide that electricity is good for the planet, its people and the bottom line.

8. Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.

About half of the global population lives on the equivalent of about $2 a day, but for some people having a job doesn’t mean they escape poverty. The access to decent work that provides a sustainable living is a part of the 3BL, as people are the first part of that bottom line.

9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.

Communities are the backbone of any country, and it is in communities where businesses thrive. The fact that about 2.6 billion people in the developing world still face problems in accessing full-time electricity is a problem that businesses can help solve. Businesses can also solve other problems, such as lack of access to basic sanitation or reliable phone services.

10. Reduce inequality within and among countries.

Although income inequality between countries has been reduced, income inequality, on average, increased by 11 percent in developing countries between 1990 and 2010. One way that can companies can reduce income inequality is to provide a living wage. A TriplePundit article last year listed 10 U.S. companies that pay above the minimum wage. At the top of the list is Costco, which starts employees start out at $11.50 an hour. Costco employees earn an average of $21 an hour.

11. Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

It is within cities where the majority of the world’s businesses are located. And it is within cities that most of the world’s population lives. Half of the world’s 3.5 billion people live in cities. When cities thrive, so do communities.

12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

One of the goals within this goal is reducing per capita food waste by half at the retail and consumer levels by 2030. A staggering amount of food is wasted globally. The cost of food waste is more than just financial, as General Mills points out. Food waste rotting in landfills creates methane, a greenhouse gas with a warming potential 21 times that of carbon dioxide.

General Mills works to ensure that the amount of food waste is less than two percent of its total product volume. It does so by making its food production more efficient and donating surplus food. In 2014, the company donated 12,600 metric tons of surplus food to charitable organizations in the U.S.

13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

The benefits of businesses tackling climate change far outweigh the costs. The economic costs of doing nothing, or what a Tufts University report describes as “business-as-usual conditions,” without new climate policies, will add up to $1.9 trillion, or 1.8 percent, of U.S. output per year by 2100 in four cost categories (increased hurricane damages, residential real estate losses due to sea level rise, increased energy costs, and water supply costs).

14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

Oceans and seas are a vital part of our earth. Over three billion people on this planet rely on marine and coastal biodiversity to make a living. The global market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is an estimated $3 trillion a year, or about five percent of global GDP.

15. Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss.

There is a business case to be made for protecting the world’s forests. About 1.6 billion people around the world depend on forests to make a living. Thirteen million hectares of forest are lost every year. That means many people lose their livelihood.

16. Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies.

The lack of just, peaceful and inclusive societies costs money. Every year corruption, bribery, theft and tax evasion cost developing countries $1.26 trillion, according to the UN. That is money that could be used to help people that live on less than $2 a day. But is that part of the 3BL? Here’s another question. Shouldn’t businesses ensure that societies are just, peaceful and inclusive? Isn’t that good for their bottom lines, including the 3BL?

17. Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

In order for these SDGs to be achieved, there need to be partnerships with governments, civil society and the private sector. In other words, businesses can partner with governments and civil society to ensure there is progress toward each goal.

Image credits: United Nations and SDG Watch Austria/Flickr

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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