How SDG alignment helped Walgreens Boots Alliance prove the profitability of sustianability

EXCLUSIVE: By aligning the company's sustainability strategy with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Walgreens Boot Alliance's sustainability team have been able to secure "far greater" boardroom-level support for its actions, the company's vice president for CSR has revealed.

How SDG alignment helped Walgreens Boots Alliance prove the profitability of sustianability

Richard Ellis explained the importance of using the SDGs to communicate the business benefits of running CSR initiatives

Walgreens Boots Alliance is widely regarded as a leader in championing the SDGs, having first adopted the framework shortly after its publication in September 2015. Since 2016, the health and beauty retailer has mapped its sustainability targets and actions against all 17 of the Global Goals, communicating this alignment through its annual CSR report and charting its contributions on both global and local levels.

Published this week, the latest iteration of this report highlights a 9.6% year-on-year reduction in the company’s overall carbon footprint, an increase in its onsite renewable generation outputs to 17,000 MWh and steady progress towards its zero-waste ambitions.

But perhaps the most striking feature of the 96-page document – and the one which has been driving the company’s progress towards more low-carbon, resource-efficient and ethical operations – is its use of the SDGs.

Within the first 13 pages of the report, the company maps all of the Goals onto its materiality matrix, which highlights the areas in which the firm can achieve the largest positive impact – and those which are most crucial to the survival of the business. 

Speaking exclusively to edie, Walgreens Boots Alliance’s vice president for CSR Richard Ellis explained that the measurement and mapping process had helped his team to achieve boardroom buy-in for its programmes by placing them both within the wider context of global environmental and social challenges, and alongside the company’s growth ambitions.

“At one end of things, we have the commercial realities of life, and at the other, the aspirations for the sort of world that I’m sure we’d all like to live in,” he said.

“The SDGs have become an expression of this aspiration while enabling companies to balance long-term ambition against some of the more commercial aspects of business life. Because they are a framework from the UN, they give us legitimacy, which makes my job much easier – we can create and pitch goals which ensure nobody is left behind, wherever they are in the world.”

The CSR report explains how each of Walgreens Boots Alliance’s sustainability programmers and actions are contributing directly to each of the Goals and how they meet the Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI) requirements for corporate transparency.

But internally, Ellis added, they are also mapped onto the company’s financial results and business growth trajectory, with these factors usually “balanced hand-in-hand”.

A standout scheme proving that sustainability is now aligned with profitability is, according to Ellis, the Alliance’s ‘get a shot, give a shot’ campaign, which it runs through its Walgreens US locations. Under the programme the company donates one free vaccine to a child in a developing country for every one it sells. To date, more than 34 million free vaccines have been delivered through the scheme and Walgreens US has become the nation’s most popular provider of shots.

Global challenges, global partnerships

The publication of the Alliance’s latest CSR report comes shortly after the company was revealed to be reaping “extensive” business benefits from SDG-aligned actions across its value chains by financial assessment firm Trucost. Trucost named the firm as one of the 13 largest SDG adopters in the world, revealing that the group of companies had collectively generated $233bn of revenue through their CSR initiatives in 2017.

This finding came amid several pieces of research concluding that customer demands are shifting in such a way that consumers are beginning to choose transparent, purpose-led brands which use sustainable ingredients and packaging over those which are cheapest.

But aside from this visible material benefit, SDG adoption has also enabled Walgreens Boots Alliance’s sustainability team to forge “meaningful, cross-sector partnerships” with other large businesses, NGOs and charities alike, Ellis explained.

The most recent example of this collaboration in action is the firm’s newly-announced partnership with technology giant Microsoft, which will see the two companies jointly develop a “fully-integrated” and universal digital system to be used by all UK healthcare providers.

By combining Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cloud technologies with the Alliance’s retail expertise and global reach, the partnership claims the technology will make healthcare more affordable and accessible if it is adopted at scale. 

“The idea that we want to forge partnerships rather than staying in our burrow and working on our own things means that all programmes have to be developed in a broader context,” Ellis said.

“They don’t exist simply because I thought they were a good idea or because they help us to achieve our goals – they are created through a process of stakeholder dialogue, in which the focus is always learning from each other and not excluding anyone from progress.”

Notable UK-based schemes over the past year, Ellis added, have included the installation of 2,200 energy-efficient and fully-recyclable beauty displays and training beauticians on how to care for customers who are undergoing chemotherapy.

Such initiatives have helped the company to shift away from viewing CSR as an add-on and begin “embedding” it within the day-to-day activities of all staff, he claimed.

“The goal is to make sure that progress is made consistently, regardless of me being there or not – If embedding CSR is done well, I almost make myself redundant,” Ellis concluded.

“Part of this is saying that the SDGs are too important to be left to any one department. The authenticity of what we do has to be embedded in all plans, programmes and activities that we pursue.”

Sarah George

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