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How Brands Can Leverage the Sustainable Development Goals

Image Credit: SABMiller

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been big news in the sustainability community since their launch in September. This session at SB’15 London, opened by Michael Spanos of Global Sustain, brought together the UN thinking on the role of business in implementing the SDGs and information on the European Commission’s financial support, along with some advisory words and the academic approach to the change that’s needed.

Spanos’ first question addressed awareness – and of course there was a big show of hands - but how many businesses have already incorporated the SDGs into their business strategy? At this point, many companies are probably at the start of this journey.

When it comes to making these goals happen, businesses and brands have a crucial role. No matter what size or geographical footprint, businesses should all be mapping the SDGs against their value chains.

Ole Lund Hansen of the United Nations Global Compact took this discussion further, explaining how businesses were part of the development process for the SDGs so that making it realistic in a business context was interwoven from the outset. This was achieved through the Forum 3000 companies, whose input helped the UN arrive at the right balance of SDGs and ensuring that goals are aspirational in both developed and developing countries.

There will be big benefits for businesses if the SDGs are achieved:

  1. Success will improve the enabling environment, making it easier to run successful businesses thanks to strengthened, more educated and healthier workforces
  2. Businesses that are thinking long term will turn the challenges of the SDGs into ways to innovate and grow new markets
  3. The SDGs enhance the business case for improved CSR and sustainability
  4. Achieving and working to achieve these goals will lead to better micro and macro structures

Beyond this, Hansen had three pieces of advice for brands:

  • Act responsibly - All companies need to get on board with reducing their negative impacts
  • Seize opportunities – Once the foundations are in place and you have a responsible corporate culture look at how can you use that to create shared value
  • Specifically align business goals to global targets - The SDGs are intended to be the inspiration for this to happen across all dimensions


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Silvia Donato, the European Commission’s Directorate General for Research and Innovation, then discussed how important the SDGs are on the UN agenda and how the European Commission (EC) has funding available to help, in the form of the Horizon 2020 programme.

Admitting that it wasn’t initially designed to align to the SDGs, Donato explained how it fits this purpose by the nature of what it is: funding for research and innovation. It was designed to bring ideas to market and to transform products and services for the better, growing opportunities and creating jobs. The core objective was always about driving research and development investment into sustainable innovations.

Horizon 2020 provides this support by giving access to finance, creating a single innovation market and promoting international co-operation. It also has a strong link with businesses, supporting industrial leadership, pushing SME participation and looking for opportunities for public-private partnerships.

In essence, Horizon 2020 is there to “Stimulate the relationship between the research community and business and society.” And this means working together to find creative solutions to achieve the SDGs.

Aris Vrettos from the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership was next up on the stage to discuss ‘rewiring the economy.’ Part of Cambridge University, the Cambridge Institute, together with partners in the business and finance community, is looking at how the SDGs can be implemented in practice.

Vrettos reminds us of the problem we are trying to address: meeting the needs of the growing population while managing our impacts on the planet. But how do we achieve the SDGs when all key mechanisms are pointing towards an unsuccessful system? This is where the need to rewire the economy comes - Vrettos and his team have been asking: what will it take to do this?

It will need the full attention of all businesses, financial institutions and governments, and the will to pull together on common issues. The project team has identified ten tasks that form part of a ten-year plan. Over this period, these tasks are designed to enable a move from short-term to long-term financial incentives. These tasks require analysis, convening, strategy, and commitment and everyone has a role to play.

Next, Anna Swaithes of brewing giant SABMiller presented her company as a case study: With a big sustainable development ambition, SABMiller has a program it calls ‘Prosper,’ which focuses on five key material areas:

  1. A thriving world
  2. A sociable world
  3. A resilient world
  4. A clean world
  5. A productive world 

Having set public targets in 2014 at the corporate level, they are now at the stage of making those targets core within the individual brand purposes. Swaithes provided three examples at the individual brand level, the first of which was Haywards 5000, a mainstream brand in India. This brand has taken the position of ‘mental resolve’ and with that has set up a training academy and mentoring programs.

The second brand example was Eagle Lager in Uganda, which was originally borne out of a societal need; many people in the country were drinking informal alcohol, at the same time suffering from extreme poverty and lack of access to basic needs. The Eagle brand established local farming, creating 20,000 smallholder farmers and 180,000 jobs. 30 percent of income from the product goes directly to women, while since its launch, it has contributed some $US70 milllion in taxes.

The final case study related to a more recent project in Colombia, for the Poker brand. In Colombia there is a lot of social division created by years of conflict, so the brand decided to focus on friendship and began to look for ways to rebuild friendship in the community. This meant building bridges, both physically - as sometime connections between villages and towns had been destroyed - and emotionally, giving people the opportunities and will to find and have a beer with an old friend.


Melody is Strategy, Digital and Operations Director at Charlescannon.

[Read more about Melody Mitchell]


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