3 ways business is making progress on SDGs - even through the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the Sustainable Development Goals seem lower priorities - but business is finding ways to make progress on both

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The COVID-19 pandemic has destabilized economies, forced governments to divert spending and drawn resources away from longstanding healthcare problems. The world was already making insufficient progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but the pandemic has made focusing on the SDGs particularly challenging for some companies and governments.

Yet there is room for optimism. In a panel at the UN Global Compact’s Uniting Business LIVE event - held virtually because of the pandemic - business leaders discussed ways their organizations and communities are making progress on the SDGs in spite of COVID-19. In fact, the pandemic may have helped them build partnerships they will need to spark recovery from the pandemic and delays in addressing the SDGs.

As Jose Manuel Entrecanales Domecq, CEO of Acciona, the Spanish infrastructure firm, put it: “In every SDG there is a business opportunity.” Here are three examples of those opportunities.

  1. Rebooting the economy

Mr Entrecanales gave the example of his company’s work in replacing desalination plants in the Middle East with alternatives that use renewable energy. Previously, these plants used evaporation techniques, which are very energy-intensive. The change to a technique called reverse osmosis is more environmentally friendly.

“It requires an enormous investment,” said Mr Entrecanales. “But it is an investment that at the same time is rebooting the economy.” This message became a recurring theme throughout the panel discussion - the way that tackling one sustainability goal can bring benefits to another. The most obvious example is water supply and conservation, which is fundamental to other SDGs, as Mr Entrecanales pointed out.

  1. Building partnerships

The fight against COVID-19 has required action from all areas of society, and often in partnership. Business has been central to that, said Clara Arpa Azofra, CEO of mobile field equipment specialists Arpa EMC. She said during the pandemic her company had supported nursing homes, hospitals, fire departments and police, and built a 400-bed field hospital in 15 days as part of Spain’s efforts to cope with COVID-19.

These kinds of partnerships, forced by the pandemic, are the kind that are important for tackling the large-scale SDG challenges. Ms Arpa added: “All that we have manufactured during this crisis, by ourselves or with the help of others, has been in a factory that has zero emissions of CO2”.

  1. Driving investment

“We’ve continued to work with our suppliers and partners across the world to drive the increased availability of recycled PET plastic,” said James Quincey, CEO and Chairman of The Coca-Cola Company. He said that this was a conscious effort because low oil prices have made virgin plastic cheaper than recycled plastic, but Coca-Cola is driven by the sustainable environment goal of creating “a world without waste.” The company continues to invest in plastic that can be recycled.

This ties together the first two points on this list, because the power of a company of Coca-Cola’s size is that they can make big investments and take partners along with them. He said: “Our Thai-based partner, Indorama, committed to invest $1.5 billion USD in recycling initiatives over the next five years.”

The two companies also worked together to build the largest bottle-to-bottle recycling plant in Indonesia. The plant can process two billion bottles per year. This kind of investment will drive down the cost of recycled bottles and change the equation, making virgin plastic less attractive to the industry.

All of these changes are happening while the global pandemic response is ongoing. They show just what can be achieved. How are you driving your SDG ambitions, in spite of the pandemic?

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