The private sector should contribute to "transforming our world", as is the aim of the UN 2030 Agenda. For that, an overhaul of the dominant business model is needed.
Adopted in September 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly, the 2030 Agenda purports to be "universal" and "ambitious". Its aim is nothing short of "transforming our world" and to "free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want" and "heal and secure our planet." To this end, the international community has drawn up an action plan comprising 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. Its implementation must be based on a "revitalized Global Partnership […] with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people."
Risk of manipulation
The private sector is one stakeholder from which much is expected. Being the supplier of capital and tax revenue, a creator of jobs and driver of technological innovation, numerous governments view it as a crucial player. Meanwhile, transnational companies are mentioned just once in the 17 SDGs, in connection with the establishment of sustainable consumption and production patterns (12.6). Yet it is clear that without them, many of the goals will not be attainable.
The problem is one of setting conditions that allow business to contribute effectively to the 2030 Agenda. So far, neither the UN nor States have undertaken this task of interpretation, and civil society proposals are still few and far between. In the absence of a common understanding, there is an appreciable risk that the private sector could reshape the Agenda to suit its own interests, and impose its own standards.
Some multinationals – Swiss ones like Nestlé and Credit Suisse in particular – have already incorporated the SDGs into their communication. Furthermore, the UN Global Compact – together with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development – have developed the SDG Compass, a guide for the implementation of the SDGs by business. Other initiatives are afoot for the mining and insurance industries among others.
Clear State rules
A number of questions arise. The 2030 Agenda describes "Private business activity" as one of the "major drivers of productivity, inclusive economic growth and job creation." The problem is knowing what this means. For the economic growth that has thus far prevailed has gone hand-in-hand with growing inequalities, pollution, overuse of natural resources and global warming. Many jobs are badly paid and marked by poor working conditions. As pertains to foreign investment, many studies show that it is not reaching the countries that need it most and that its contribution to sustainable development is highly controversial.
In other words, enterprises per se are not agents of sustainable development. They will only begin to fulfil this function when their policies and activities are aligned with the principles and aims of the 2030 Agenda, namely inclusive growth, environment protection, reduction of inequalities, decent work for all, respect for human rights, sustainable natural resource management…
As underlined in a study by the London-based Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) – jointly funded by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) – what is being aimed for is a "model without historical precedent". This will require the State to lay down clear rules – including legal ones – to make business more responsible, accountable and sustainable.
Piecemeal and incoherent approach
Another problem is that with so many goals and targets, companies are tempted to take a selective approach. They pick out the SDGs that suit them, are easiest to attain or for which projects already exist. This for example is what Nestlé has done by linking to the SDGs the 39 commitments under its programme for creating shared value, as well as Credit Suisse with its glossy brochure entitled Aiming for Impact: Credit Suisse and the Sustainable Development Goals. From this perspective, the 2030 Agenda becomes primarily a catalogue of opportunities, or even a communication tool.
Yet the 169 targets of the 17 SDGs are "integrated and indivisible". Taking them seriously does not merely mean doing a bit more of what one is already doing or doing it a bit better, but doing it differently. As the IHRB correctly underscores, "the SDGs need business but not business as it is (or often is)." In this regard, the SDGs question the nature of economic activity, profit as an end rather than a means of development, the practices of enterprises, which are required to help bring about "fundamental changes in the way that our societies produce and consume goods and services."
The Addis Ababa Action Agenda – produced by the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (July 2015) – reflects a good theoretical grasp of this: "We will develop policies and, where appropriate, strengthen regulatory frameworks to better align private sector incentives with public goals, including incentivizing the private sector to adopt sustainable practices and foster long-term quality investment." The 2030 Agenda mentions the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in this connection.
In the spirit of the SDGs, it is therefore incoherent for business to oppose efforts by the State to regulate human rights and the environment, as required, for example, under the Responsible Business Initiative. Nor is it acceptable – as Novartis is doing in Colombia – to sue States in order to protect patents when governments take steps to "provide access to affordable essential medicines and vaccines."
Conclusion: whereas business is one means of attaining the SDGs, even more than this, the Goals are an opportunity to transform business towards greater sustainability and respect for internationally recognized human rights and environmental standards.