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UN SDGs Prompting Business Collaboration for a Better World

L-R: Chris Guenther, Lindsay Bass and Alyson Genovese | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

Back in the ballroom for the last afternoon of Sustainable Brands’ New Metrics ’15, SustainAbility’s research director Chris Guenther hosted a discussion on the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), what they mean for brands, and how they can respond to the risks and opportunities. He was joined by Alyson Genovese, US and Canada head of corporate and stakeholder relations for Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and Lindsay Bass, manager of corporate water stewardship for World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The UN General Assembly nation states unanimously adopted the new 17 SDGs and accompanying 169 targets in late September to serve as a 15-year roadmap for solving humanity’s biggest challenges. The goals aim to end poverty and hunger, increase global education opportunities and combat climate change.

Genovese started by explaining how GRI is stepping up to help businesses navigate the goals and understand how they can help, by partnering with the UN Global Compact and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) on the SDG Compass, which will support businesses in aligning their sustainability strategies, including impact assessment and corporate goal setting, without adding to reporting overload. The Compass is designed to let businesses “map the data you are already reporting and mapping it to the goals you are working on going forward,” she said.


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Bass answered the question of what the SDGs mean for WWF in the context of the group’s ongoing Living Planet Report research: “We see natural capital being drawn down by the human footprint. If you keep doing that to a bank account, at some point you will it some acute pain points. The SDGs are a huge opportunity for our organization to influence the global agenda around sustainable development and make sure we take into account natural systems - not only to sustain healthy sustainable communities, but healthy economies.”

Speaking hopefully for the SDGs’ potential, Bass said, “It doesn’t happen often that the world globally agrees to something so complicated and technically difficult as the SDGs, with the inclusion of stakeholder voices. If we take the level of the work we’ve had up to this point in terms of collaboration and partnership, and apply that to implementation, we’re looking at the right trajectory for the planet.

“The SDGs really start to drive this whole focus of the global community around the issues that are central to our being able to exist on this planet in a sustainable way,” she said.

Genovese agreed: “We can’t overstate how the SDGs are different in terms of a collaborative process.” The four-year UN engagement process included NGOs, governments and business representatives sitting together to deliberate the 17 goals and 169 targets, to create economic development at the very local level. “For the business community overall, there’s still much work to be done in terms of how the goals will be implemented and measured. But for the first time, business will be able to tie their goals into a larger purpose.”

She mentioned that GRI updated its Sustainability Disclosure Database to include SDG target 12.6, which encourages member states to encourage or require companies to report on their sustainability activities. The Target  12.6 – Live Tracker is now available to track the progress of sustainability reporting around the world.

While there is plenty of excitement around the goals, there are also doubts and uncertainties.

Speaking from the water angle, Bass said that WWF sees more benefits than challenges. WWF is looking at implementation and indicators that will be used to measure SDG 6, the goal for clean water and sanitation. A new paper released by WWF with CEO Water Mandate looks into the opportunities for corporate water stewardship and sustainable development.

Questions and comments from the floor included the suggestion for participants to look into Impact 2030, a global, private sector-led collaboration to mobilize employee volunteers in support of the SDGs.

Guenther noted some criticisms of the SDGs, including their complexity, lack of accountability measures, and the risk that the goals enshrine a “development as usual” paradigm with an emphasis on economic growth, without an examination of the causes of systemic poverty and environmental degradation.

Bass added on to this thought, saying: “We will have to question paradigms, and whether or not we force ourselves to confront them before the situation becomes so acute that there’s no other option - that’s the question in my mind.

“Where you do focus, go big,” she said. “We need to challenge ourselves to go beyond targets we know we can achieve.”

As was the case at other sessions this week, YK Center co-founder Tal Ronen commented from the audience that climate science requires business to “brutally confront reality” and seek fast solutions for accelerated progress towards the goals.

“We’re lacking a sense of urgency. We don’t seem to be able to have that conversation in consistent and powerful ways,” he said.

Bass suggested that brands that want to be part of the SDG process should “get engaged with dialogues at the WBSCD and UN Global Compact. If you don’t like what you see, get involved.”

Genovese noted that the SDGs’ strength is that they show how poverty and environmental degradation are all interrelated. She summed up the session with a reminder that the SDGs are really just a beginning: “Now we all have the same goals, what can we do together?

“We’re acknowledging that we’re all in this together and we’ve all agreed to these goals. Let the games begin.”


Claire used to do corporate communications for the world's largest insurance company. Then she saw wild orcas off the coast of British Columbia and quit her job to go sea kayaking. Ever since, she's been freelance writing for companies such… [Read more about Claire Sommer]