UN Global Compact summit: Sustainability critical to CEOs

A wide view of the General Assembly Hall as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks at the U.N. Global Compact Leaders Summit held on June 22-23. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / U.N.

The majority of CEOs believe that sustainability is important, and mobilizing and harnessing that belief was part of the agenda at last week’s United Nations Global Compact Leaders Summit, which brought together heads of international business and industry.

CEO perceptions are changing — 97 percent of CEOs surveyed in a recent U.N. Global Compact and Accenture CEO study said that they believe that sustainability is important to the future success of their business. This year’s survey of more than 1,000 CEOs found that 67 percent believe that business is making sufficient efforts to address global challenges, up from 32 percent in 2013.

CEOs said that the SDGs are seen to provide a clear framework to structure sustainability efforts and 78 percent said they already see opportunities to contribute to the SDGs through their business.

To help capitalize on those opportunities, the U.N. Global Compact launched the Making Global Goals Local Business Strategy initiative at the summit, aiming to help businesses address the global goals by recognizing leaders, supporting local action plans and facilitating partnerships.

It was the first leaders summit since the Sustainable Development Goals were approved in September. With so much emphasis placed on the private sector as the catalyst for the goals, this year’s leaders summit carried an added importance.

For many Global Compact signatories present the mood and atmosphere of the gathering was both celebratory and determined — celebratory of the current initiatives by private business to achieve the global goals, but tempered by the recognition of the lengthy and difficult work still ahead.

To convey both messages, the central focus of the conference was on opportunities and best practices. Lise Kingo, executive director of the U.N. Global Compact, told the more than 1,100 summit attendees that the Sustainable Development Goals are an opportunity for global businesses to solve the world’s most intractable problems by pursuing models of sustainable competitiveness.

Companies that are Global Compact signatories used the forum to share their learnings and experiences putting the SDGs into practice. The sessions promoted the best practices of a collection of businesses who are aligning their operations with the goals as a way to encourage other companies present to recognize new market opportunities through those experiences.

Some of the key learnings were aggregated in the Global Opportunity Report, which examines the way business sees risks and opportunities related to the SDGs. The study, which was launched at the summit, is a compilation of surveys, workshops, interviews and strategy discussions with more than 6,000 business leaders from all over the world that maps out the top business opportunities behind what the companies surveyed classified as the top five risks to international commerce.  

The 2016 report identified climate change as one major risk. But the businesses surveyed collectively identified opportunities in developing adaptation technologies to protect coastal cities from storm surges. Also highlighted were risks that threatened SDG 14 — life below water. The report mapped out opportunities for businesses in life and medicinal sciences to develop innovative medicines with ocean resources in ways that promote sustainable fisheries.

Individually, companies shared their experience with the SDGs. Sinopec — China’s largest state-owned oil company — promoted a strategy to expand its geothermal business unit and increase the number households in China that tap into geothermal power generation by 10-fold in the next five years. Swedish carmaker Volvo also announced a target to sell 1 million electric vehicles by 2025. And French industrial services giant Suez highlighted various partnerships it has brokered with state and local governments in developing countries to engineer more sustainable water delivery or municipal waste management services.

In some instances, large multinational companies have made smaller efforts towards promoting the SDGs with the expectation that those will grow. For example, Standard Chartered Bank in Nigeria has implemented a simple practice of embedding a link to the SDGs in the email signatures of all of its employees as a way to boost awareness and spur action towards the goals in every bank correspondence.

“If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent a night with a mosquito,” Bola Adesola, the bank’s managing director and chief executive for Nigeria told the audience, recounting an African proverb.

Standardizing the SDGs into everyday thought and practice is part of the Global Compact’s mission, said Kingo. “[We need to] get people to think about the SDGs as frequently as they pull up their mobile phones,” she told the audience.

The summit also marked the Global Compact’s inaugural Local SDG Pioneers award. A recognition of 10 entrepreneurs who were judged as having catalyzed sustainability through their business models and mobilized action at scale towards the SDGs.

U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson closed the summit noting that “the beauty of SDGs is that they form a practical vision of interdependence.” The first Global Compact Leaders Summit since the approval of the SDGs promoted that interdependence through practical experience sharing that builds partnerships and advances understanding of how businesses can evolve in parallel with the global goals.

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About the author

  • Naki B. Mendoza

    Naki is a former reporter, he covered the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America, and Australia.