The SDG roundtable: Getting engaged with the Global Goals – Part Two

edie brings you the second part of an exclusive roundtable discussion hosted in association with DNV GL which explored how businesses can drive engagement with the Government, consumers and suppliers to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Read Part 1 of this SDG roundtable article here.

The Brexit elephant

The majority of roundtable participants were still in the “mapping” stage of the SDGs, with many choosing to overlay the Goals onto existing CSR strategies. One of the biggest barriers to SDG action cited by these participants was a lack of political drive in taking the SDG agenda forward.

The discussion was led by Emily Auckland, network director of the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD), which works with organisations to facilitate the delivery of the SDGs in the UK. Earlier this month, the UKSSD released a landmark report which highlighted that the UK Government is only performing well on 24% of relevant SDG targets. Policymakers are yet to produce a Voluntary National Review outlining successes, challenges and lessons against the 2030 agenda and, as such, roundtable participants were in agreement that more stringent political frameworks are needed to stimulate business activity around the Goals.

“The consistency of policy is just not there at the moment,” Costa’s energy and environment manager Ollie Rosevear said. “The UK Government doesn’t seem to be entirely joined up on this and there’s a danger that it won’t really deliver.

“Business has the responsibility to drive this but, unless Government gets involved, we’re not really going to shift the dial. Is Government getting confused by thinking they must mandate everything? We just want to hear them starting the conversation.”

According to the DNV GL survey mentioned in part one of this write-up, one of the major barriers for business when it comes to achieving the 17 SDGs is a lack of clarity over regulatory and policy developments supporting them. To this point, Vodafone’s senior sustainable business manager Tom Salisbury noted during the roundtable discussion that a lack of clarity over what roles and responsibilities business and Government have in delivering the Goals is stifling progress.

Of course, whenever policy discussions emerge, it doesn’t take long for the elephant in the room that is Brexit to be brought up. Many of the roundtable participants mentioned that current conversations with Government tend to primarily revolve around the UK’s departure from the EU, suffocating opportunities to talk about the SDGs.

The Body Shop is one company that is looking to step into the SDG driving seat. The cosmetics retailer recently sent high-level business representatives from its parent company Natura out to the UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) for Sustainable Development in New York, where the company enforced a commitment to Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. 

Goal 12 is particularly relevant to The Body Shop and Cruelty Free International’s current Forever Against Animal Testing Campaign. But, as the retailer’s senior manager of international campaigns Jessie Macneil-Brown noted at the roundtable, even conversations with international governments tend to merge into conversations of post-Brexit trade.

“The impression I get is that the UK Government won’t talk about anything because they’re so focused on Brexit,” Macneil-Brown said. “At the moment, it doesn’t matter what country it is, they’re all talking trade negotiations with the UK.”

Macneil-Brown suggested that that business might need to get “tactical” when talking to governments to ensure that the SDGs were a prominent feature of discussions. Revealingly, none of the roundtable participants said they were involved in active conversations with the UK Government about the SDGs – underlining the scale of this challenge.  

One particularly frustrating aspect of the UK Government’s slow progress on the Goals is that policymakers have themselves previously developed legislative frameworks that have had a positive impact on business actions relating to key societal needs. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act, for example, has seen all UK companies with a turnover of more than £36m to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement as a minimum. At the roundtable, Charlotte Wolff-Bye, vice president of sustainability at Equinor (formerly Statoil) noted that this type of legislation had reshaped her business – culminating in its renaming, which combines the themes of equality and the company’s Norwegian heritage.

Missing pieces of the puzzle

But, if Brexit is proving to be something of a distraction away from the SDGs among governments, then could the Goals instead provide a more immediate opportunity to drive engagement among suppliers and consumers? Equinor’s Wolff-Bye, The Body Shop’s MacNeil-Brown and Bunzl’s Gilroy all noted that businesses could use the SDGs as a “fantastic and positive distraction” which reframed some of the most pressing societal impacts among these key stakeholders.

Issues such as ocean plastics, equality in the workplace and modern slavery are all emblematic of the topics that consumers are aware of and demanding change. They also all act as thematic pillars underpinning some of the SDGs, but companies have done little to correlate progress on these issues with the Goals and underlying targets.

Pulp and paper manufacturer Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) featured as a best-practice case study for achieving the Goals in a 2016 report by DNV GL, with the study praising APP for its progress against Goal 15: Life on Land. During the roundtable discussion, APP’s European director for sustainability and stakeholder outreach, Liz Wilks, suggested that businesses need to “consumerise” the SDGs to place them at the forefront of the public’s attention.

“Perhaps the SDGs are just a vehicle to move the conversation to an international language?” Wilks suggested. “We need to consumerise them, otherwise, how does the message get across?”

For APP, the SDGs have indeed acted as a communications vehicle that has helped transform the company from something of a laggard to an industry leader when it comes to tackling deforestation, with a big emphasis being placed on engaging with on-the-ground suppliers and stakeholders.

At a supplier level, roundtable participants agreed that there was a need for sectors to collaborate to make the Goals more prominent. Telecoms giant BT, for example, has scaled its Better Future Supplier Forum to help its supply chain embed sustainability. The company’s head of sustainable business policy, Gabrielle Giner, explained how this had created a “spark” that had driven low-carbon innovation. The trick now is to emulate these positive results and gear collaborative efforts towards achieving the SDGs, Giner said.

For Wolff-Bye at Equinor, the company has mapped the SDGs globally through the lens of the energy industry. But, Wolff-Bye noted that it wasn’t until the Goals had been communicated at a regional level – with a particular focus on finance through things like a carbon tax – that the Goals began to really resonate with stakeholders.

However, roundtable participants did admit that their industries were generally less focused on the SDGs due to increased consumer pressures on more specific actions. Pentland Brands, for example – which owns fashion brands Ted Baker and Lacoste – is currently targeting ways to combat fast fashion, largely due to heightened consumer awareness. But, as an aside to this fast-fashion focus, Pentland Brand’s head of corporate responsibility Karina O’Gorman explained that pressure groups aren’t so interested in progress – or a lack of it – towards achieving the SDGs.

“Talk of the SDGs isn’t happening at an industry level,” O’Gorman said. “I can think of a number of voluntary groups and commitments we’re signing up to because of pressure groups, but there’s no mention of SDGs. There’s a gap there to collaborate.”

Clearly, there’s still a lot of business action required to accelerate progress against the SDGs. But with the business case for achieving the Goals now beginning to establish itself, roundtable participants began to look at what must happen next. Specifically, they noted the importance of regular progress reports being publicised – including those that show how corporates are negatively impacting certain Goals. But among businesses themselves, the participants seemed in agreement that the key focus now must be on using the SDGs as a lens to engage the rest of the business in creating value through sustainability actions.

Matt Mace  

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