Why COVID has made SDG Ambition more urgent than ever

The pandemic has shown that radical systemic change is possible — something that will be needed to achieve the SDGs

The COVID-19 pandemic has given the world an unprecedented window of opportunity to work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), believes Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture.

In support of the announcement of the first-ever set of SDG business benchmarks, Sweet sounded a rallying call for the global recovery following the outbreak: “I think we should have a lot of optimism, when you see how fast the world can change, when you clearly articulate a purpose, when there’s a lot at stake.”

“Because of the global pandemic, there’s going to be a lot of change. So the purpose we must have is to embed in that change the goal of shared success for all.”

At the Summit, participants got their first look at a new set of business benchmarks that aim to establish a “new normal” for companies in Decade of Action to deliver on the SDGs. The benchmarks come as part of the SDG Ambition programme, first launched by UN Secretary-General António Guterres at Davos in January 2020.

Speakers stressed that even though the world had “no idea” the coronavirus was on the way when SDG Ambition kicked off, there was already a sense of urgency over achieving the SDGs, with progress lagging particularly with those related to climate change and social inequality.

The pandemic simply reiterated the need for prompt action, she said. “Otherwise we will never upgrade the business models and social contracts that are clearly not working out today.”

The initial set of ten business benchmarks includes: 100% of employees on a living wage; gender balance across all levels of management; net-positive water impact in water-stressed basins; zero waste to landfill and incineration; zero discharge of hazardous pollutants and chemicals; 100% sustainable material inputs that are renewable, recyclable or reusable; science-based emissions reduction in line with a 1.5°C pathway; 100% resource recovery, with all materials and products recovered and recycled or reused at end of use; land degradation neutrality including zero deforestation; and zero incidences of bribery.

Speakers in the session said they would enable businesses to undergo an inside-out transformation: “It’s about ensuring the internal processes inside a company are geared to really integrate the SDGs, right from the purpose of the company up to governance to the corporate strategy, through to operations and stakeholder relations.”

Intended to be applicable to all sectors of business, the benchmarks did not have to represent a threat to profitability, said Sweet. “Sometimes people are worried that there’s a tradeoff [between the SDGs] and meeting your business objectives. But in reality it isn’t in black and white.”

In fact, the Accenture chief believes the new guidelines are crucial in terms of the clear and realistic goal-setting that would be needed to achieve the SDGs.

She cited Accenture’s efforts to achieve gender parity by 2025: the company has increased from 36 per cent women to 44 per cent today, all while increasing the workforce from 300,000 to 500,000, and currently running at 9 per cent growth. Greater diversity was needed in order to innovate better as Accenture continued to enter the digital economy.

“We got there because we set the 50/50 goal, we had an execution plan, we measured our progress and we had accountable leaders,” Sweet said. “By setting these benchmarks, we’re helping the companies establish the goals. By working on the management tools, we’re helping them measure progress.”

The UN Global Compact hopes to enroll more than 1,000 companies in the SDG Ambition programme over the next three years in order to achieve “critical mass,” in working towards responsible business.

Digitalization would be key in the process, she said – especially with getting small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on board. Sweet added that larger companies could accelerate this transition by examining their supply chains and encouraging SMEs within them to participate.

The Accenture chief concluded that the key thing was how the pandemic had accelerated the sense of how fast change could happen. “Because companies reacted so quickly, many CEOs are saying: I don’t want to go back, and I want to be able to move much more quickly in the future.”

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