A global purpose, part 1

11th February 2016

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In September 2015, the United Nations unveiled 17 sustainable development goals to achieve by 2030. Businesses worldwide will play a critical role in meeting them. Penny Walker explains why

Over the next few months, I will look at the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) in detail in a series of articles grouped into six themes: dignity; people; planet; partnership; justice; and prosperity. This first piece focuses on dignity and goals for ending poverty and achieving gender equality.

Introducing the goals

On 25 September 2015, the world’s governments came together to adopt a set of sustainable development goals that are wide ranging and specific. The 17 goals (see panel, below) and 169 associated targets – created through a multi-stakeholder consultation – form a comprehensive description of the environmental and social challenges to overcome if greater sustainability is to be achieved. The goals and targets came into effect on 1 January and are expected to trigger action. ‘The SDGs provide a stimulus for individual action on targets that would add up to greater recognised change, even if incrementally, across a very broad set of global challenges,’ says Adrian Campbell, associate director at Arup.

Leading names in business and sustainability are already exploring how to use the SDGs. Stephanie Draper, deputy chief executive at Forum for the Future, explains her organisation’s experimental approach. ‘We’ll map all our major projects against the goals and ask questions about what the analysis implies.’

As well as providing a baseline, Draper anticipates this will help staff understand how Forum for the Future’s work can accelerate achieving the goals.

Campbell says his is team is using the SDGs as a basis to review the consultancy’s current sustainable building design strategy. Campbell says: ‘As independent consultants, we value the freedom to define how we approach our work. The SDGs are so universal. For once, they allow us to use these as guiding principles for our thinking without constraining how best to advise clients.’

The 17 goals:

1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

3. Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.

4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.

10. Reduce inequality in and among countries.

11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss.

16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development.

Why are businesses focusing on the SDGs?

There are four main reasons why many companies are engaging with the goals. First, the SDGs, which replace the millennium development goals, are likely to set the context for action by governments and multi-sector initiatives around the world over the next 15 years. Phil Cumming of Koru Sustainability points out that they provide ‘insights into future investment and public policy – and in particular offer a more international view of what sustainability is all about’.

Second, the SDGs can be a benchmarking tool, helping organisations spot gaps and opportunities as Arup and Forum for the Future are finding out.

Third, as Colleen Theron of CLT envirolaw, explains: ‘They are a brilliant shortcut to briefing yourself on the non-environmental sustainability issues that you may need to get up to speed with quickly.’ Having emerged from a multi-stakeholder process and with the stamp of approval from the UN, the SDGs form a credible systemic survey of the issues, especially when the targets that underpin each goal are examined.

Last, they provide a common language and shared purpose, making in-house and external communication and collaboration easier.

The tools to help

For businesses wishing to use the goals strategically, a free online toolkit called SDG Compass is available. It shows how companies can align their strategies with the SDGs and how to measure and manage their contribution. It was produced by three organisations, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, UN Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative.

SDG 1: Dignity

Penny Walker looks at the role of businesses in helping to end poverty and achieve gender equality

The first of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. Targets focus on halving poverty and eradicating the most extreme examples of it, building social protection systems, establishing economic rights and access to basic services, ensuring resilience and developing policies that help to end destitution.

Business can play a profound role in lifting people out of poverty, other than through the established methods of corporate philanthropy and charity drives. How an organisation conducts its business can make a huge difference – positively or negatively – to the very poorest people. They may be part of the supply chain or want to be; they may be neighbours, impoverished or empowered by the way the organisation uses natural resources and looks after the local community. CARE International is a development NGO that has worked with businesses to make their operations more ‘pro-poor’, as well as drawing on expertise and funding to set up projects to help people rise out of poverty.

One of its partners is the mining multinational Anglo American. The company has funded CARE projects as far apart as Brazil and Zimbabwe to help micro-entrepreneurs establish and grow businesses. It also runs a long-standing enterprise development initiative in South Africa, supporting small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) through a mixture of finance and mentoring. For its own staff with money problems, Anglo American provides a programme to help them manage their debts.

Other companies have looked at personal financial management in their wider supply chains. Nyati Sacco Society is a savings and credit cooperative set up to help current and former security guards in Kenya. Companies can partner with the society to give their lower paid employees access to low cost loans and interest bearing savings accounts.

UK owned drinks company SABMiller and Colombian food processing conglomerate Grupo Nutresa are two firms that have prioritised bringing small, local producers into their supply chain.

SABMiller’s Nile Breweries subsidiary in Uganda has trained local farmers in agricultural and entrepreneurial skills, and the farmers in turn supply the company directly with locally grown sorghum, thus increasing their income. Grupo Nutresa, meanwhile, which has nine production plants across South and Central America, works with local farmers to improve yields and quality, increasing the competitiveness of small, local suppliers so that their businesses are on a sounder footing.

In the UK, more companies are signing up to become a living wage employer, with more than 2,000 registered at the end of 2015. The range of organisations that have committed to paying the living wage rate, as set by the Living Wage Foundation, include ready meals business COOK, charity Friends of the Earth, the City of Lincoln Council and the National Grid.


Making a start – poverty

There are myriad ways in which an organisation can make life better or worse for the poorest people, and lots of starting points when it wants to better understand and improve its impact. These include:

  • Making an overall assessment – through, for example, the poverty footprint process developed by Oxfam and the UN Global Compact.
  • Employment commitments – employee and sub-contractor wages and security of employment. For example, paying the UK living wage through the supply chain and recognising trade unions.
  • Support – helping staff through short-term challenges, such as their homes being flooded or sudden illness, which can spiral into a crisis for those without a safety net.
  • Accessibility – consider the goods and services the organisation supplies. Are they available to poorer people? Do the poorest end up paying more for the same service because they cannot access the discounts available for paying by direct debit or online?
  • Procurement – are new, smaller businesses able to sell the organisation its goods and services or does the procurement process preclude or hinder them?
  • Reaching out – what groups could the organisation help by providing access to financial support? Employees? Companies in its supply chain? The local community?

Gender issues

The fifth SDG is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Associated targets focus on discrimination and equality of opportunity; ending violence, including sexual violence; eradicating practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation; ensuring unpaid domestic work is valued; providing access to sexual and reproductive healthcare; and achieving equal rights in democratic and economic spheres.

According to the UN, worldwide women in the labour market still earn 24% less than men in comparable work and more than a quarter of countries do not guarantee equal rights for women in their constitutions. As the UN says: ‘In many nations, gender discrimination is still woven through legal and social norms.’

Even in the UK there is no room for complacency. The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for women’s rights, says the gender pay gap for full time workers in the UK is 13.9% in favour of men. Moreover, 20% of mothers experience harassment or negative comments related to their pregnancy or caring responsibilities from colleagues or their employer. Executive directorships held by women on FTSE 100 boards reached an all-time high of 8.6% in 2015, according to Cranfield University’s annual benchmarking report. Dizzy heights indeed.

Taking action

Cosmetics company L’Oréal has been pioneering an approach to gender equality by getting its businesses around the world certified by EDGE (Economic Dividends for Gender Equality). This third party certification aims to ensure that companies have a ‘structured and systematic approach to measure, track and close the corporate gender gap’. The EDGE Standard covers not only the pay gap between men and women, but also the under-representation of women in senior positions and the different advancement opportunities and career paths between the genders.

Angela Guy, senior vice president of diversity and inclusion at L’Oréal USA, says gender equality helps to retain employees by meeting their needs and embracing values that are important to them. ‘To us, it is not just about advancing women; it’s about creating a culture where both men and women can thrive,’ she says. ‘It’s good for business and for the bottom line. We want to create a workplace that inspires the creativity of our workforce.’

On why L’Oréal USA has sought external certification, Guy says: ‘It’s not enough to say we’re committed to gender equality; we need to always measure it, track progress and hold ourselves accountable. The EDGE certification creates a system of checks and balances to ensure we’re constantly identifying ways to foster equality in the workplace and gives us a major competitive edge in recruitment, development and retention of talent.’

The products and services a company supplies can have an impact on gender equality. Take toys. Toys R Us received a lot of media attention in the run-up to last Christmas by announcing that it would no longer demarcate toys by gender in the UK. Spanish company Toy Planet has gone further. Its catalogue has boys pushing prams and girls playing with toy power tools. Some toy producers, GoldieBlox being one, are designing ranges to encourage girls to learn about STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths.

Another sector looking at gender is fashion. Explicitly citing the SDGs as its inspiration, Italian clothing business Benetton has taken an integrated approach, raising money and awareness through its orange dress campaign. Posters show women in various careers – from doctor to artist, student to athlete, and soldier to mother – and money raised from the sale of the limited edition dresses is going to the agency UN Women to support its gender equality work.

Benetton is also working in partnership with other companies in the ready made garments supply chain to promote women’s empowerment and equality. Initiatives include training on gender issues, microcredit and financial support for women, and programmes in factories for female workers and their children to raise economic self-sufficiency. The firm expects to invest €2 million over the next five years in these projects.

Infrastructure and large construction projects have different impacts on women and men. Tom Streather, social safeguards team leader at engineering and development consultancy Mott MacDonald, says: ‘At a World Bank financed irrigation project for which Mott MacDonald is providing resettlement planning services, we found that local women were predominantly economically active in selling shea nuts. The reservoir being developed is expected to result in the loss of some trees, which would potentially have an adverse impact on their livelihoods. We explored these impacts through surveys and focus group discussions with the women to enable us to develop appropriate livelihood restoration measures, such as the promotion of women-only agricultural cooperatives.’

Because multinational lenders demand that social impact assessments for such projects address gender issues, Mott MacDonald offers clients gender action plans. These are intended to reduce any negative effects and make the most of its opportunities to empower women.

Streather says: ‘In terms of how this work specifically relates to meeting SDG targets, such as ensuring the equal right of women to own and inherit property, sign contracts and register businesses, we promote the inclusion of women’s names on land title deeds provided through resettlement processes. Mott MacDonald also contributes to SDG targets related to ending discrimination, mainly in the arena of labour and working conditions, where we help our clients to develop non-discriminatory human resources policies.’

Other considerations in developing countries include providing: separate bathrooms and changing areas; sexual and reproductive health services; childcare and schooling to free women from caring responsibilities; and safe whistleblowing routes for women to report harassment and sexual violence.

Making a start – gender equality

  • Examine current practices – the Equality and Human Rights Commission has an equal pay audit toolkit. In the UK, the government has been consulting on mandatory gender pay gap reporting, and this year it will make a decision on this. EDGE certification looks at policies and improvement plans, as well as monitoring and measurement. Issues to consider include carers leave and the impact of flexible working on promotion.
  • Products and services – do they promote equality or reinforce stereotypes?
  • Supply chains – are suppliers predominantly from one gender? Can women work with dignity and an equal chance of economic independence?
  • Impacts – consider wider systemic impacts of projects and developments. Are women disproportionately affected? What can the organisation do to address this and improve the lot of women and girls?


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