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How CEOs and Local Governments Drive Support for the SDGs

By Dave Armon
Between more CEOs pushing for their companies to align with the SDGs, along with more action at the state and local level across the U.S., the evidence suggests this United Nations-endorsed framework for sustainable development is gaining plenty of traction worldwide.

Between more CEOs pushing for their companies to align with the SDGs, along with more action at the state and local level across the U.S., the evidence suggests this United Nations-endorsed framework for sustainable development is gaining plenty of traction worldwide.

Among companies voicing their support for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 68 percent are getting their marching orders from the CEO, according to United Nations Global Compact chief Lise Kingo.

The results of this advocacy can be seen across several industries.

More than 80 percent of Global Compact’s 71 chapters are working on one or more of the 17 Global Goals, with a delivery date of 2030. She added, however, that consumers won’t wait more than a decade for solutions to certain hot-button problems.

“Take in how quickly public perceptions around an industry can change,” Kingo told Bloomberg Television anchor Ramy Inocencio in New York earlier this month, noting as an example the rapid villainization of the plastic straw during 2018. “It has put the spotlight on the state of the world’s oceans.”

Images from Norway of a dead whale, its stomach clogged with plastic bags, spawned a fast response that included bans on plastic bags in villages, towns and cities across the world. In the U.S., California and Hawaii have banned single-use plastic bags statewide. Other industries Kingo sees as likely next targets by environmentally-minded consumers who are frustrated with the current pace of change include the oil and gas, fish farming, airlines and fashion sectors.

Such activism at the state and local level can be attributed to the fact that since 2016, federal policy is no longer the driver for environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies in the U.S. Moreover, pressure continues to mount at the state level to abide by the 2015 Paris Climate agreement. Businesses are keen on being part of this movement, too, explained Kingo.

“The trend for companies wanting to be responsible in the way they operate is an unstoppable trend. It’s not going to go away,” Kingo said. “It doesn’t matter who’s running the administration; this is happening around the world.”

So who is leading and lagging on the SDGs?

Data presented at the Bloomberg Sustainable Business Summit, the first of seven events the media and data provider has scheduled for 2019, shows Norway is the closest to achieving the SDGs by 2030. Among the largest economies, the United States has fallen behind, followed by Mexico, according to Michael Green, CEO of Social Progress Imperative.

China, India and Bangladesh are experiencing a decline in personal human rights, while inclusiveness scores are down in Brazil and the United States, said Green, who described the situation as “very worrying, indeed.”

“The rich countries of the world have to wake up and realize that the SDGs are [also] for them” or they will fall short, said Green.

Following the ratification of the SDGs in 2015 by more than 190 of the U.N.’s member countries, corporations began to tie their existing ESG work to the global goals. As 3BL Media reported in 2017, there was a 30 percent increase in company announcements referring to the SDGs over the previous year. That trend continued in 2018 as corporate leaders from General Mills, Pfizer, CEMEX, Las Vegas Sands and other companies grew more comfortable sharing their plans with peers.

The pharmaceutical industry claims it is doing its part to ensure the SDGs become reality.

Carmen Villar, Vice President of Social Business Innovation at Merck, said SDG Goal #3, Good Health and Well Being, is a priority for the 128-year-old New Jersey-based pharmaceutical powerhouse.

Merck is also focused on seven additional SDGs, including non-traditional goals not routinely associated with the pharmaceutical sector, said Vallar. She added that efforts to drive awareness about the SDGs at Merck include employee ambassador and fellowship programs.

For Syngenta, a key to achieving SDG #2, Zero Hunger, is gaining buy-in from farmers and others in the food supply chain to recognize their contribution to global goals, said Sarah Hull, global head of business sustainability for Syngenta’s North America business.

“Achieving sustainability in agriculture is key to fulfilling our core mission,” Hull explained, adding that additional goals for Syngenta are SDG #12 Responsible Consumption and Production; SDG #1 No Poverty; SDG #17, Partnerships for The Goals; SDG #13 Climate Action; SDG #15 Life on Land; SDG #3 Good Health and Well-Being; and SDG #8 Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Finally, it’s worth noting that more financial companies are striving to align with the SDGs.

Work has already started at HSBC, which launched a $1 billion SDGs bond in late 2017. All projects will be assessed through an SDG lens but may not necessarily meet the criteria established for the bank’s existing green bonds, according to Divya Bendre of HSBC’s Sustainable Finance, Infrastructure and Real Estate Group in the Americas.

During the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month, UBS published a white paper on the topic, “Awareness, Simplification, and contribution: Core Requirements Needed to Actually Achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.”

The wealth management giant is driving awareness of the SDGs among investors by giving them access to ESG scores for stocks and bonds globally through a “personalized sustainability score,” said Andrew Lee, UBS’s head of sustainable and impact investing in the Americas.

In private equity, KKR is now looking for companies with core products or services that make a direct contribution to one or more of the SDGs, said Elizabeth Seeger, KKR’s director of sustainable investing. 

“If we can’t prove that, it doesn’t go into our investment strategy,” she said, adding that the recent $510 million impact co-investment of the Indian hazardous waste firm Ramky Enviro Engineers Ltd. was the second transaction following the new guidelines.

For a sampling various companies’ work on the Global Goals, check out the SDGs feed on 3BL Media.

Image credit: UN Women/Flickr

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Dave Armon is the Chief Executive Officer of 3BL Media, which produces the 3BL Forum and ranks the 100 Best Corporate Citizens. A former journalist, Dave spent 20 years in management at PR Newswire, where he was president and COO.  

Read more stories by Dave Armon