Holding businesses accountable is the only way to achieve the SDGs

The vast extent of global corporate power means that some multinational companies have more influence than entire countries. However, as things stand, the lack of legally binding accountability means that too many companies are failing to live up to their rhetoric – or, in the worst cases, using empty words or unsubstantiated claims on the SDGs to greenwash.

While governments around the world are responsible for achieving the SDGs within their borders, business action on them is voluntary. And yet there is no way we can reach these goals without the might of the corporate world. So corporates must also be held accountable for making progress on them.

Interlinked crises are putting the achievement of the SDGs in grave danger – but failing to meet them is not an option. Global Goals Week (16 – 25 September) is an important chance to face stark facts and drastically increase the urgency of action. More than four years of progress in combatting poverty has been erased by Covid-19. The window in to halt irreversible climate change is rapidly closing – witness the current devastating flooding in Pakistan. Faced with these monumental challenges, the SDGs are by far the best framework to keep our planet habitable and protect millions of lives.

The 17 goals – giving a clear blueprint for a better, kinder, fairer and greener world – were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015. Generating such a widespread, landmark agreement like this is unlikely to happen again for a long time. Now is the time for the private sector to step up and go further, faster, to deliver on them.

Who will hold companies accountable on their journey towards the SDGs? There is no single answer. We can’t just expect market forces to drive consumers towards businesses taking real action. There needs to be proper and trusted frameworks.

The first step in countering false promises is to expose them. We need to investigate corporate operational systems and show the discrepancy between claims and reality. Then we need to ensure all companies use the same robust and consistent mechanism to measure what they are doing to make progress.

Currently, there are many sustainability standards, but a complete lack of standardisation. There is data overload – with different standards, accreditations and corporate sustainability claims, often behind paywalls. This plethora of (sometimes conflicting) measuring tools makes it hard to understand or trust what companies are actually doing. It also makes it impossible to compare their progress.

Governments need to create the right set of regulations. Investors have power to hold businesses responsible by positively impacting board decisions and wealth movements to address environmental and social challenges. When it comes to businesses, we need to reward the type of leader who understands that their company’s future is inseparable from that of both people and planet – and who takes meaningful action on this knowledge. NGOs and the media need to call out companies failing to act ethically.

And yet clearly, there are limitations to all these checks on corporate behaviour. That is why the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) exists – to be part of the solution. It was set up in recognition of the essential role of businesses in achieving the SDGs and the need to hold them to account in a consistent way.

Focused on the world’s 2,000 most influential companies – whose actions can substantially help or hinder system transformation – we conduct rigorous research into their performance and share free insights, via our independent benchmarks, so that the information can be accessed and used by all groups of society, from investors to consumers. We are supported by a 300-strong global community of diverse allies, spanning associations, foundations, business membership groups and more – and we are all about working with, not against, businesses.

Benchmarking offers many benefits. It clarifies exactly what society expects from industry and business. It specifies just what companies must do to reach sustainability goals and promotes a race to the top, comparing corporate performance. It celebrates the companies proven to do the right thing and compels the laggards to catch up – harnessing pride and pressure as two sides of the same coin. It is the only way forward.

This isn’t about throwing brickbats at businesses. We all benefit from the huge positive impact that corporates have – but it is also true that businesses cannot thrive unless the people and places around them are thriving, too.

It is no exaggeration to say the future of our world will be shaped by what governments and businesses do on the SDGs – and whether they are held accountable against them. All responsible businesses should want to be held accountable for ensuring this.

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