A formidable compass: How the SDGs can guide us to build back better

A formidable compass: How the SDGs can guide us to build back better

Introducing a panel discussion on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs or also known as the Global Goals) at the virtual UN Global Compact Leaders Summit, His Excellency Dr. Mokgweetsi Masisi, the President of Botswana, said that the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for a long time and could reverse the many development gains of the last few decades.

Governments around the world now face the dual task of recovering from the pandemic while maintaining focus on the Global Goals. Moderating the panel, Managing Director of Sustainability at Accenture, Peter Lacy asked how we can raise the bar on SDG ambition and build back better after COVID-19.

Inequality, pandemic and economic shock

For Helena Helmersson, Chief Executive Officer of clothing retailer H&M Group, the fundamental lesson of the pandemic is that the supply chain and partnerships on which the firm depends are quite vulnerable to shocks. This realization has prompted the company to take on initiatives, such as extending its partnership with the Red Cross, in which it donates clothes to the charity and uses social media to amplify its messages.

In contrast, for an energy company like Schneider Electric, the pandemic has been an urgent call to action. “We power hospitals, smart grids and pharmaceutical firms. We needed to make sure that worked,” said Jean-Pascal Tricoire, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Schneider. Only once the crisis is under control can firms like Schneider consider the rebuild.

In the midst of the pandemic, protests erupted against police killings of unarmed Black people in the United States of America, and the Black Lives Matter movement has swiftly led to protests across the world against systemic racism, intersecting with the ongoing public health crisis and economic disruption. “The struggle against racism that we see today is really a struggle against inequality,” said Fani Titi, Chief Executive Officer of Investec. “These moments are catalysts for fundamental change.”

A formidable compass

As the SDGs are also about fundamental change, can this moment be used as a catalyst for advancing progress towards these Global Goals? For Mr. Tricoire and his company, the UN Global Compact and the SDGs have been “a formidable compass”, with Schneider aiming to be carbon neutral by 2025 and reach net zero by 2030. Although Mr. Tricoire recognizes that the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2030 is a high bar, this bold target has functioned as an incentive for Schneider and its customers to look for disruptive technologies.

Agreeing that energy is a crucial area for creating momentum on development issues, Mr. Titi said: “We have taken the view that not only is it the right thing to do, but that we see business opportunity in renewable energy projects.” As a bank, Investec’s role in advancing climate action is to mobilize resources and make available the capital needed for innovative projects.

Recognizing that agriculture is a major source of emissions, Sunny Verghese — Co-Founder and Group CEO of the food and agri-business company Olam International Limited — emphasized that building back better for his company means finding ways to produce more food to meet the demands of a growing population, but without putting more strain on the planet’s resources. He gave the example of shipping cotton from Cote d’Ivoire to the United States: 2 per cent of the cotton’s carbon footprint comes from the actual shipping and the rest comes from agricultural practices.

Partnerships are key

Improving agricultural practices relies, in part, on improving conditions for the farmers themselves and this is why Mr. Verghese plans to eliminate child labour from the cocoa systems for which his company is responsible for by 2030. By the same year, Olam plans to move 150,000 cocoa farmers in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire to a living wage.

H&M also sees the importance of working closely with suppliers and other stakeholders as the firm is looking closely at how it can help to re-skill or develop new jobs with its partners and for those in the supply chain.

“We are here to contribute to meaningful growth — for people, colleagues, customers and our planet. And we also need financial resilience to keep on investing,” said H&M CEO Ms. Helmersson. “We want to provide fashion and quality at the best price, in a sustainable way.”

Companies can’t do all of this alone, however, nor can Governments. In his address at the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit, Dr. Masisi warned: “The Global South — especially the already vulnerable countries — will certainly face an Herculean task in an attempt to move to a recovery.” He called for “substantial private-public partnerships” and noted that the UN can help to bring these about.

The task is a major one, but the panel was optimistic. As Mr. Titi put it: “It makes business sense to be sustainable today.”

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