The Business Case for the Sustainable Development Goals

The Business Case for the Sustainable Development Goals
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<p>Doug Frantz is Deputy Secretary-General of the OECD.</p>

Doug Frantz is Deputy Secretary-General of the OECD.


When it comes to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have all heard the criticism. The SDGs are too, well, you fill in the blank: Too ambitious, too bloated, too political, too expensive, too broad, too universal.

The critics are not completely wrong. The 17 SDGs and their 169 targets were produced by committee after lengthy, political negotiations. Rarely are the results of such wrangling straight forward or simple.

But the criticism misses the point. Indeed, the SDGs are ambitious, expansive and universal. That’s the whole point: The SDGs are the blueprint to go from the world we have, to the world we want to have.

Eradicating extreme poverty, ending hunger, fighting climate change, providing basic health care, education and clean water, those were never going to be straight forward or simple challenges. Creating a more equitable and sustainable world is tough work, but failure to do so would be catastrophic.

The world faces a historic opportunity. Succeeding will require all of us to rethink the fundamentals of development and development assistance, and to re-examine the way we do business and the way we measure progress.

Wealthy countries have to look themselves in the mirror and recognise their own problems, such as rising inequality and unsustainable consumption patterns. Charities, foundations and international organizations have to set aside rivalries and work collaboratively. Governments and the private sector have to cooperate as partners to rebuild public trust and create a new, sustainable and inclusive business model.

At the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we are working with all stakeholders to generate evidence, identify good practices, develop standards and help design and implement policies relevant to the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda.

A key event in this effort will occur on April 5 at the OECD’s annual Global Forum on Development in Paris. The day-long conference will bring together senior representatives of business and government with various experts, to talk about how to work together to achieve the SDGs. Topics will range from innovative ways to finance the goals and building a public-private dialogue, to delivering sustainable development for Africa’s rapidly growing cities.

But there is a simpler objective. We need to convince the business sector and governments that we will fail to achieve the SDGs unless they form an unprecedented partnership. Governments cannot do it alone. Official Development Assistance, administered through the OECD Development Assistance Committee, is critical, but far from enough. Foundations, charities and NGOs have big roles to play, but they can’t lift this burden.

The reluctance of some business leaders to embrace the SDGs is understandable. They worry that the UN is trying to force companies to become charities. They argue that they need to remain focused on returns for shareholders, particularly in this slow-growth economic environment.

This is not only about corporate social responsibility. Even the most hard-hearted CEO should understand that there will be no future business without sustainable markets and people with the skills to produce their products and the money to buy them. Not to mention what happens if we fail to combat climate change, SDG No. 13.

For their part, some governments see business as a pocket to be picked, with too little understanding of the need for profits and sustainable investment. With the promise of billions, even trillions, to finance the SDGs, seeing past the dollar signs can be tough.

It’s time to scrap “business as usual” on both sides of the coin for a real partnership based on trust and mutual understanding. Government leaders need to take into account the interests of business when they discuss investments. They need to be transparent and assure that the rule of law takes precedence. Business leaders need to see that the SDGs are not just a public good -- they are good business. Plenty of data shows that companies that include sustainability in their business plans outperform their peers.

Consider a report released in January by the Business & Sustainable Development Commission, a group led by 35 CEOs and civil society leaders. The group concluded that sustainable business models could open new markets worth up to $12 trillion and create up to 380 million new jobs by 2030.

Putting the SDGs at the heart of global economic strategy will drive growth and productivity. This is about building a sustainable business and development plan that minimizes impact on the environment and maximizes equality and prosperity.

Talk isn’t enough. We need action. This means concrete steps to establish a common language between governments and business in order to start a meaningful dialogue on the value of the SDGs to take us from the world we have to the world we want to have.

Doug Frantz is OECD Deputy Secretary-General overseeing development and the SDGs.

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