Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and its accompanying 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) over three and a half years ago, a recurring topic in many discussions on global development has concerned financing this ambitious agenda that is estimated to cost $5 to 7 trillion. And businesses all over the world—from China to Norway—are showing unprecedented interest in exploring how they can contribute to the sustainable development agenda.
Three main sources of funding for the SDGs are typically identified: own funding by governments through taxation, foreign aid, and private sector finance.
But there are growing concerns that many of the poorest countries will not be able to self-finance programmes and that recent threats to aid from the Global North will stall efforts to advance the SDGs. Thus, the consensus in most high-level discussions is that achieving the SDGs will be impossible without greater engagement of the private sector.
The push for greater involvement of businesses in sustainable development has primarily rested on two main sets of arguments. Some have argued that aligning activities with the SDGs represents enormous “business opportunities” related to innovation, job creation and access to previously untapped markets, in addition to lowering legal, reputational and business risk profiles of companies.
Others highlight a “moral duty” for businesses to engage in public dialogue aimed at lobbying for policy change that will benefit the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. In their quest to be more responsible global actors, and irrespective of size and area of operations, the argument is that businesses must comply with existing legislation, demonstrate greater respect for the protection of human rights and actively combat corruption.
Both sets of arguments make a compelling case for more active involvement of businesses in global development.
In large parts of the world, businesses are trumpeting their sustainability strategies, which portray their engagement as win-win, i.e. crucial for both profits and societal well-being.
What has received less attention is the actual operationalisation of such grandiose intentions. For example, a recent survey by The World Business Council for Sustainable Development found that although 79 percent of member company reports referred to the SDGs, only six percent specified strategies linked to these goals.
My colleague Kaja Elise Gresko and I have argued elsewhere www.sum.uio.no/sdg that the need of the hour is for businesses to operationalise sustainability commitments.
Such commitment requires concrete anchoring in strategies and measurable efforts tied to specific SDGs and their corresponding targets.
Some also believe that companies should not just trumpet their embrace of the SDGs, but also report on their negative impacts (e.g. on the environment) towards the goals to provide a more holistic view of a company’s overall impact on sustainable development.