Do the SDGs matter for co-op businesses?

The business case for engaging with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals

A 2015 report by PwC showed that while only 33% of people surveyed were aware of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 90% of those who knew about them believed it was important for businesses to sign up to them. In addition, 78% said they were more likely to buy the goods and services of companies that had signed up to the SDGs (67% in the UK). This makes an important business case for co-ops to position themselves as pioneers in implementing the SDGs.

Governments are still seen as having prime responsibility to achieve the SDGs, with 49% of businesses respondents and 44% of citizens ranking them first. However, as awareness of the SDGs is increasing, the public is beginning to perceive business as having a more important role. Businesses themselves are gaining more knowledge about the SDGs, with 71% of  firms telling PwC they were already planning how to respond to the goals. Around 34% of businesses said they had agreed plans and were implementing them, while 37% were still planning their approach.

By contrast, only 13% of businesses responding to PwC’s survey had identified the tools they needed and only 29% had set goals. Furthermore, 22% of businesses said they were either waiting for the SDGs to be ratified or for government regulation before doing anything or thought it was the government’s responsibility, not theirs.

Apart from increasing their credibility, adopting the SDGs will give businesses a competitive advantage, particularly in countries where governments are looking at aligning policies with the SDGs. They will also be more resilient should new regulation be passed to support the SDGs.

Malcolm Preston, global sustainability leader at PwC, writes in the report that the SDGs can help drive a long-term approach for businesses as sustainability moves from the corporate sidelines to mainstream. Being member-owned, co-ops have an advantage over other enterprises, due to their long-term approach and concern for community.

The report highlights that, in order to implement the SDGs, businesses will need to rethink their strategy, and not just tweak it. The SDGs are interconnected, which means work in one area may affect another. Businesses will need an overview of all their goals, then, and can start by examining which of their activities help – or hinder.

Another 2016 report by KPMG argues that achieving the SDGs’ targets by 2030 will require cross-sector partnerships. The consultancy firm advises businesses to start by examining the issue the partnership aims to tackle and what each organisation can bring to the table while assessing the risks and rewards of it.

According to KPMG, meeting the SDGs will depend on adopting new approaches to problem solving, the development of innovative financing mechanisms, and pioneering approaches to co-operation that will redefine the relationship between public, private, and NGO/civil society stakeholders. For the partnerships to be successful, they will need to be based on genuine commitment from partners, equality and respect, transparency and patience and persistence, said the report.

The 2017 Better business, better world report by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission also makes strong business case for adopting the SDGs. The Commission, made up of world business leaders, says the corporate world needs to regain public trust.

The report anticipates greater pressure on enterprises to prove they are creating quality employment, paying taxes where revenue is generated, abide by environmental and labour standards, integrate social and environmental factors in investment decisions, and partner with others to build an economy that is more just.

The commission estimates that achieving the SDGs will open up US$12tn of market opportunities in four economic systems – food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and well-being. All of these are sectors where co-ops operate.

And contributing to the SDGs can help businesses find new opportunities, make efficiency gains and drive innovation;. And if they build a reputation for sustainability, enterprises can attract employees and customers, business-to-business customers and investors as well as secure licenses to operate.

The Commission estimates that if social and environmental indicators fail to improve over the next 5-15 years, there will be a popular backlash against business coupled with regulatory responses from governments. In such a context, first movers who have already aligned their resource use and workforce management with the SDGs will have a 5-15 year advantage on the sustainable playing field. Can co-ops be among them?

  • Read more from our recent series on co-operatives and the Sustainable Development Goals here.
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