Op-Ed: Corporations dodging sustainability? $12 trillion at stake

Posted Jun 12, 2019 by Paul Wallis
The UN created a model for 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) model specifically for the big businesses of the world in 2015. Harvard Business Review reports that very little is being done to deliver on any sustainable goals.
Wall Street: the New York Stock Exchange.
Wall Street: the New York Stock Exchange.
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The almost totally grotesque irony is that the UN has identified a massive $12 trillion worth of business opportunities for sustainable development in those goals. That’s no figure out of a hat. Innovation and big money rewards typically go hand in hand. “Sustainability” also happens to mean sustainable ongoing business, so there are genuine business benefits across the board in SDGs.
In a strongly-worded article Harvard Business Review records the outcomes of their extensive investigation. Their research shows that a grand total of two companies are actually achieving goals; 27 out of 50 claims to be working on goals, but aren’t really doing anything new. The UN Global Compact received an 80% commitment to SDGS, and In effect, it’s almost a total washout.
HBR, almost too reasonably, points out that there are several possible causes for the lack of progress. Reasons include setting too many goals, non-specific goals, and what seems to be a lack of structure, focusing on big goals at the expense of working on more attainable business outcomes. The overall thrust is that the sustainability goals have become too rhetorical and have little basis in fact on any level.
Also very much to the point, HBR tactfully suggests facilitating partnerships to achieve goals. This may be a basic business principle, but putting it into practice in new business initiatives can be complex. First, you have to figure out what your sustainable goal is, then find a productive partner to work with.
Not impossible, but bear in mind the sheer scope of corporate business and possible goals. Many corporations tend to work almost exclusively in-house, particularly with major business initiatives, and you can see a few other potholes for this idea.
HBR also wants “accountability”. This is a reasonable expectation from one of the world’s most famous business colleges, but can it work? Accountable to whom for what? How would you enforce accountability? Corporate culture isn’t exactly famous for accountability of any kind and that culture is hardly transparent on a daily basis in public.
Messaging the shooters – The ideological divide
It’s hard to imagine anyone deliberately dodging a possible $12 trillion worth of business. Maybe that very basic business message hasn’t got through to the real decision makers? Even the word “sustainability” may be a turnoff?
Sustainability is all about business, on every level. The word means:
• Best possible use of resources
• Minimization of risk through safer, cleaner practices
• New, more efficient ways of getting better business outcomes
• Protecting businesses against future risks, costs, and resource acquisition
• Using the best of new technologies and new working principles for improved profits
• Not getting trapped in the market with out of date tech, business models, etc.
• More business opportunities through better business methods
Put that way, it looks like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Every single thing about sustainability is about practical options. The whole idea of sustainability is based on longer views of business needs. It’s called sustainability because it’s entirely based on proven sustainable principles.
Of course, it’s not as easy as that. Since mainstream media in its infinite wisdom has made any suggestion of green terminology an ideological issue, sustainability is a bad word in corporate environments. Receptivity to even basic concepts of sustainability is minimal. This is one of the worst, and most utterly useless cases of conceptual polarization, and it’s not going away.
OK, being a CFO doesn’t make you an expert on sustainability. It does, however, relate directly to your area of expertise, insofar as it delivers better financial outcomes. You may or may not have strong feelings about the idea of sustainability, but compare those feelings to your bottom line expertise. Can you think of any good reason you wouldn’t look at a better financial position for your business? Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
If a new practice or new idea saves money, makes money, and delivers ongoing financial rewards, what on Earth is the problem? A word? Simply relate the sustainable options to your business goals, and do the metrics. It’ll make sense, and it’ll make good business sense, too.
This terminological hiatus hernia in basic thinking has to go. Sustainability is typically low cost, low impact, and high reward-based. Massive outlays are not usually required to achieve solid, productive results. Quite the opposite; sustainability ideas are typically custom made to deliver benefits with less outlay. If you’re in the corporate sector, consider the possibilities, and use your instincts. That’s one sustainable resource which you can always access.