By Teresa Fogelberg
Imagine you’re crouched down on the starting block, focused on the track ahead of you. You look to your left and see Usain Bolt. Turn to your right and look at Flo-Jo. You know it’ll be a challenge, but you’re fired up and ready to try.
At the finish line is a sustainable world – something we are in a race against time to reach. With a rapidly increasing population on one side of us and fast-depleting resources on the other, we have to accelerate our sustainability journey if we are to win the race.
Here’s the one difference: We are actually all on the same team. This is not a solo race; it’s an international effort. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the fuel that will give our global team the boost it needs. And we have to work together – across politics and party lines.
The 17 SDGs aim to address the major sustainability challenges we face today. Under their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), we cut extreme poverty, boosted education, increased vaccination rates and reduced HIV infections, among many other victories. Businesses embraced the MDGs: They experimented with new business models to support sustainable development and started to tell us what they were doing in their annual and sustainability reports, so we could hold them accountable.
Today’s global problems are even more pressing than those the MDGs were designed to address. It’s an injustice for a farmer who has lost her land to climate change to be forced to live in extreme poverty and hunger. A 7-year-old child should have a chance to learn and play instead of being forced into working. A nursing mother should have clean and safe water for her and her baby. And it’s unfair for a woman to earn less than a man for doing the same work.
The global SDGs show that we agree on these things, and that we have agreed to take action as an international team.
Businesses around the world are already inspired to make meaningful changes and seize the opportunities the SDGs bring, joining international organizations like Business Call to Action and the U.N. Global Compact.
The only companies likely to survive in the long term are those that rethink the way they make money, rejecting the notion that their sole purpose is profit and thinking too about the ways in which they’re affecting the world. A clothing company might save money by using suppliers that employ children in their factories, but customers will stop buying their unsustainable products. A mining company might see potential profits in an area if they move a local community, but their investors will take away their support in the face of increasing reputational risk.
Spurred on by SDG target 12.6 – “encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle” – companies will be more accountable for their impacts and better able to weather the proverbial (and literal) storms that lie ahead. Using a tool like the SDG Compass, which was developed by GRI, the U.N. Global Compact and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), companies can work out how they can contribute to sustainable development.
And it’s transparency that will help us keep track of how they are doing. They can use the GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards – newly launched guidance that represents global best practice in sustainability reporting – to report their concrete contributions to the SDGs.
GRI was born in the U.S. out of the nonprofit sustainability leadership organization Ceres. There are more reporters in the U.S. than any other country, accounting for a large proportion of the thousands of companies around the world that have reported their impacts; the GRI Standards are the ideal tool for determining their most relevant and important impacts and contributions, then measuring and reporting on them in a way that helps their stakeholders track their progress.
There’s also a way to see how sustainability reporting is going on a broader scale: Governments can monitor and track the real-time global progress of sustainability reporting with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal Target 12.6 – Live Tracker, which GRI developed in collaboration with Tata Consultancy Services.
With these measurement tools, all companies will talk about their impacts in the same language, and stock exchanges and countries will have the chance to track their reporting and measure progress at the macro level.
Are the SDGs ambitious? Undoubtedly. Idealistic? Perhaps. But together, we are a strong global team capable of great things. Together, we can secure a sustainable future for future generations.
Teresa Fogelberg is Deputy Chief Executive of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)