The Shifting Sands That Welcome the Sustainable Development Goals

By Sally Uren

The Pope’s recent invitation to social activist Naomi Klein to join his forthcoming high-level environment conference is an indicator of the shifting sands which define the historical role of civil society, government and business. In turn, these shifting sands are why the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are capturing the imagination of business in a way that no aspect of the sustainable development agenda to date has managed to do. In short, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are offering an opportunity for new, and in the case of the Pope and Naomi Klein, unusual collaborations.

The current global development framework, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), expire at the end of 2015. As a result, the international community and stakeholders have been busy negotiating a new set of global goals to incentivize and measure process on sustainable development and poverty eradication: the SDGs.

Unlike the MDGs – which focused primarily on social development priorities in low-income countries – the SDGs will aim to provide a blueprint for sustainable development that incentives and drives change in all countries across the globe. The goals will have to contribute to poverty eradication in low-income countries while addressing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production in the developed world – in both cases addressing the balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability.

A central narrative for delivery of the SDGs will be a story of increasing demand and decreasing availability, placing further pressures on our fragile ecosystems and fragile societies. Over the lifetime of the SDGs, seismic shifts in the global economy will continue to change the patterns of global trade, and the demographics and health of our global population will remain in transition. Some trends will continue to move in the right direction as millions are lifted out of poverty. However, the specter of an explosion in rates of non-communicable diseases, with obesity rates leading the charge, remains a real threat, and everyone stands to be affected by the far-reaching implications of climate change.

Despite this, solution spaces are emerging. We are seeing citizens mobilizing powerfully to create movements on specific issues from banning bee toxins to getting rid of ‘pink slime’ in meat products in American schools, and examples are emerging of the circular economy in action. A digital explosion is enabling smart cities, smart homes and smart agriculture, ushering in an era of ultra-transparency. Citizens around the world have access to gigabytes of data that was simply not available two years ago. People are asking questions: Where are goods and services coming from? How can I get connected to the causes I care about?  Digital is decentralizing power and handing it to the people — just one reason why the traditional roles of government, business, civil society and NGOs are in transition.

Governments have to look further than legislative tools to create enabling conditions for sustainable development, and they are also running low on cash.  This isn’t just a story about Greece, but around the world governments can’t afford to deal with the impacts of unsustainable development and are turning to the private sector for investment.

In turn, we are seeing the rise of purpose-driven business and brands, looking way beyond the direct boundaries of their business and seeking to provide solutions that address complex sustainability challenges.  The list is long and includes Unilever’s Lifebuoy story and Tesla‘s move from luxury cars to energy storage solutions designed to scale solar power. And, of course, there is a new breed of purpose-driven leaders.

Finally, NGOs are deploying sophisticated change models to use campaigning and partnership to tip all of these actors into action. It is against this backdrop of blurred roles and responsibilities that the SDGs will be ratified. This is why the goals throw up an unparalleled opportunity for business, government and civil society to come together and create impact at scale, through collaboration, co- creation and co-innovation. The announcement this week from 13 of the biggest corporations in the U.S. to invest $140 billion in fighting climate change is just one signal of this opportunity.

The MDGs were seen to belong mostly to governments and aid agencies. The reality is that the SDGs will belong to all of us and will be driven not primarily by government, but by new partnerships between business, government and civil society.  The role of business is no longer just about delivering quarterly returns, but delivering positive environmental and social outcomes.  Add in the Pope, and there might just be a chance that shifting sands could deliver the firm foundations for sustainable development.

Image credit: Flickr/YoTuT

Sally Uren joined Forum for the Future in 2002 and currently oversees Forum’s partnerships in both the UK and globally, as well as Forum’s networks and communication activities. She is a member of Sustainable Brands Advisory Board and speaks regularly at national and international conferences. Sally is Chair of Kingfisher plc’s Independent Stakeholder Panel, a Panel Member of the UK’s Green Energy Supply Certification Scheme and an independent member of The Carbon Neutral Company’s Technical Advisory Board. 




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