Try asking anyone if they think we need a better world and you'll find there's consensus that we do. Try checking which better world, and you'll find everyone has a different vision for the future.
Yet amazingly, 193 countries (100% of United Nations members) figured out how to agree on what a better world would look like. With the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) they adopted unanimously last September, these countries created a blueprint for a world without poverty or hunger, with affordable and clean energy, with quality education and gender equality, with responsible consumption and production, and so on.
Now comes the hard part: how do we transform our world to look like that blueprint?
In less than a year, an amazing amount of work has already been done. Businesses are mapping out SDG commitments and strategies. Nations are reviewing which laws, regulations and policies they need to amend in order to do their part to achieve the goals. Finance is being mobilized; toolkits are being created. Focusing on Goal 16, about justice, an international law firm led a process to create a global roadmap of practical steps called "Business for the Rule of Law." The "big six" global ad agencies announced their own commitment to the SDGs called "Common Ground," where each agency will focus on heavy promotion of a different one of the 17 goals. Partnerships among governments, businesses, and civic groups are being launched to tackle specific problems. There are knowledge-sharing platforms, technology facilitation mechanisms, new websites to showcases actions, and guidelines on data gathering and reporting.
In its 16 years of existence, the UN Global Compact (UNGC), an initiative within the UN which began as a simple list of 10 principles businesses could sign onto, has mobilized a vast network of companies. The 10 principles, which concern human rights, labor standards, environmental stewardship and fighting corruption, now count more than 8900 company signatories. The UNGC rallied some of the most sustainability-focused companies into a group they call "LEAD" and put them to work in a network to advance corporate sustainability and promote best practices. This year the LEAD group, leading the way on integration of sustainability into core business practices, is focusing specifically on the SDGs.
The UN also created an investor network in 2006 called the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), which now counts more than 1550 asset owners, investment managers, and service providers as members, representing more than 60 trillion dollars in assets under management (more than half the global total). PRI works to promote inclusion of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in investment decisions. And in 2007 a third network was launched, this time to engage business schools in sustainability principles. The Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) now counts more than 630 members. The mission of PRME is to transform management education, research and thought leadership globally by providing a framework, developing learning communities and promoting awareness about the SDGs.
The UNGC, through its corporate signatories, is setting up local networks (in 80 countries so far) to map out local SDG action plans together with governments and other community stakeholders. This is where a global shift can really occur: on the ground.
Lise Kingo, executive director of the UNGC, knows well that business doesn't set out to do good for the sake of doing good, but has the power to effect enormous change where a business opportunity exists. That's why her approach is to "make global goals local business." This means identifying business opportunities within the large-scale problems, such as poverty, that the SDGs are designed to address.
The UNGC publishes a "Global Opportunity Report" every year illustrating where such business opportunities lie. One example is health initiatives through mobile apps.
Critics of corporate sustainability often say it is nothing more than a communications tool and can mask counter-productive "greenwashing." They don't believe incremental steps can lead to a true cultural shift.
But the UNGC keeps adding building blocks, hoping to create the momentum to launch a movement and change mindsets definitively. Indeed, its latest idea is to launch a "Breakthrough Innovation Platform," challenging its corporate members to invest R&D resources on innovations designed to help achieve the SDGs.
Can all of this work? I am optimistic. Between incremental steps and breakthrough innovations, we just might find ourselves in that better world we don't even know how to envision.