Nations United: presenting the business case for sustainability in Geneva

In my last blog, I talked briefly about the journey the business world has taken when it comes to perceptions of sustainability and CSR. We're moving on from a 'nice to-have' mentality - a time we might now hope to consign to the dark ages of corporate responsibility - through an era when the majority understood its importance but still viewed it as an 'inconvenience-to-do'.

Nations United: presenting the business case for sustainability in Geneva

The most forward-thinking businesses are now deploying sustainability as a key driver for growth.

With this in mind, I entered unchartered territory this month and had the honour of speaking at the UN’s Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva, almost a year to the day since the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 were agreed. Carillion’s annual Sustainability Report was seen as a leading example of engaging external audiences on the ins and outs of the business case, and we’d been asked to present a first-ever corporate case study to show how companies were publishing performance measures beyond just financial metrics.

This is about as daunting as it sounds. From the grandiose building itself, to the amphitheatre’s vast bowl with its translators, country name cards and rows of international experts – a scene I’d observed many times from afar but not one I’d imagined myself appearing in. However, you can’t champion the broad benefits of responsible business on a daily basis amongst your colleagues and industry peers, then turn down the chance to do so on one of the biggest stages possible. Besides, my internal pep-talk quickly focused on the fact that Carillion has a great story to tell, with real and inspiring examples to bring it to life from across our international network.

The discussion centred on International Standards for Accounting Reporting (ISAR33) and support for the SDGs. I showed delegates how sustainability and responsible operations underpin our business model, strategy and decision-making, shaping collective behaviours across our 46,000 strong workforce. I demonstrated that Carillion shares the SDGs ambition and we already map to at least nine of the Goals – presenting a case study ranging from our biodiversity and UK charity partnerships to our recycling initiatives in the Middle East and support for indigenous communities in Canada.

Naturally, the UN representatives also wanted to get down to the brass tacks of the sustainability business case – particularly in the tough economic climates of competitive industries like ours – so I explained our commercial proof points. Our sustainability evidence directly provides content for our project bids and work-winning objectives, so it has a central role in our financial stability and growth. On this evidence, sustainability must now be afforded the same scrutiny and measurement as any business practice with the potential to impact the bottom line, and consequently contribute to wider socio-economic progress.

Through the investment of time, key skills and knowledge-sharing, our teams drive local economic growth, employment and skills, community cohesion and environmental quality. In this way we not only make a positive contribution to the nations and communities where we operate worldwide, but develop the strongest internal culture and employer brand for our business. This encourages companies and markets to do business with us, helping to create a place where talented professionals are motivated not only to join but also to stay and forge long, satisfying careers.

In the end, we need to understand that the SDGs aren’t a flash in the pan – they’re the world’s development roadmap for the next 14 years – so we’re all ultimately linked by a shared tomorrow.  Clients, investors, government and the public must now press more companies to prove how they’re making it a better one through their contributions to those Goals.

They are all urgent, tangible and achievable ambitions that translate well in any language.

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