It’s been an intense year again in the margins of the UN General Assembly. The main focus –again – was to articulate how the world’s governments, business, and civil society can together achieve the ambitious 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that clearly define the world we want. After extensive multi-stakeholder dialogue, the United Nations’ 193 Member States laid out in 2015 a 15-year plan for ending extreme poverty, fighting inequality and injustice, and protecting our planet.
This plan for achieving a better future for all relies on the 17 goals, which apply to all nations and leave no one behind. It is a plan leading to a sustainability revolution. But while governments and NGOs may be very familiar with this dialogue process, having discussed the SDGs at length before their adoption, businesses, however, too seldom see themselves as an integral part of this global challenge.
“Why bother?”, businesses may ask, when sound marketing strategies seemingly already take care of consumers’ needs. Don’t “happy and prosperous consumers” already contribute to building a better world? Why should business “transform the world”, as the UN Global Compact’s slogan advocates? Why should we suddenly rethink business strategies in collective terms, when individual strategies have long proved to be efficient?
If these are legitimate questions, they clearly reflect the past. The world has developed so quickly since World War II, and business has contributed so much in building our current system that it holds most of the keys to transforming itself into a force for good. The sustainability revolution is happening. Remaining a passive spectator would have long-term negative consequences for each and every one of us.
All revolutions need a genuine breakthrough in cultural behaviours to succeed. The sustainability revolution is no different. Most governments and NGOs are convinced that our society can only become sustainable if business plays its part. Indeed, the economic activities of the fast majority of people on our planet take place within the business sector. In the past five years, Davos has increasingly heard calls for a more responsible capitalism. So far, however, few business leaders have leveraged their power and influence to drive social change. Even less have redesigned their corporate strategy to address one or more SDGs.
Who are these business leaders of our modern world? Courageous risk-takers? Restless heroes? A quick look at their public discourse shows that all of them use similar arguments and that the defining characteristic of those driving change is indeed their mindset — in other words, cultural behavior focused on the greater social good.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, many saw the dangers of short-term thinking. Quite rapidly, some business leaders, such as Paul Polman and Francesco Starace – who are now the new “heroes of sustainability” understood that putting the interests of others ahead of their own could actually be in their self-interest.
Ten years later, the sustainability revolution is at the scale of the Industrial Revolution and offers an ocean of growth opportunities. The global challenges that the SDGs define – ranging from climate, water and food crises, to poverty, conflict, corruption, and inequality – are in need of solutions that the private sector can deliver. This represents a growing market for business innovation, and the figures speak for themselves: The UN Global Compact leadership initiative argues that SDG-related market opportunities could be worth at least $12 trillion a year in revenue and savings by 2030. Its forecast breaks this down into $1.8 trillion in the field of health and well-being, $2.3 trillion in food and agriculture, $3.7 trillion in cities and urban mobility, and $4.3 trillion in energy and materials.
With this new urgency to transform business models and systems for the future, integrity and values will play a fundamental role. Here, the answer is also no longer about merely ticking the boxes and being compliant with existing legislations. Doing business responsibly today is about finding the right opportunities for solving societal challenges, enlarging the field of collaboration, being innovative for social good, or — as the UN puts it — transforming the Global Goals into local business. Today’s success lies in understanding the needs of society and the environment and addressing them. For the interests of each of us as citizens. Because our collective interest is becoming our self-interest.
Being a revolutionary business in this new paradigm isn’t just about using state-of-the-art technologies and innovative business models. Fundamentally, being a successful business today and avoiding extinction or damage through disruption is about mindset and leadership. It’s about public value.