Originally published in Board Agenda

The 2030 agenda to transform the world is ambitious, but there’s a role—and benefits—for every board. Here’s how to get involved.

At its New York headquarters, on 25 September 2015, the United Nations held a summit attended by representatives of the world’s governments. The result was a global plan called the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, that came with an action list to change the world for the better. The list contained 17 items—“sustainable development goals” (SDGs)—which included better health, equality and education for all, sustainable economic growth and an end to poverty and hunger.

Helle Bank Jørgensen, CEO of Competent Boards, points out that these 17 SDGs “represent the world’s biggest threats—but also hold the promise of rich returns”. In a chapter in her book, Stewards of the Future, Bank Jørgensen is clear about the risks of not addressing these goals:

“No board member or CEO can make money or keep their job if their business burns to the ground, is swamped by an entirely foreseeable flood, or has lost the confidence of those who put their trust in it,” she writes. And, given that accountability in this area is only increasing, “boards that fail to integrate the SDGs into their overall strategies could find themselves exposed to severe regulatory and reputational risks.”

‘By far, corporations have the biggest capacity and capability to both invest and generate revenue in a way that has a material impact on people, planet, and society.’
—Upkar Arora, board member, chair.

However, Bank Jørgensen is positive about the opportunities associated with participation: “Boards that embrace the UN targets stand to be well rewarded. Competent boards would be wise to act, and act soon…. In the process, they will help cement their own licence to operate and grow.”

She points out that action by business “will play a major role in determining whether we can achieve the goals, and how soon. Plus, no company is too small to make a contribution.”

Bank Jørgensen cites the Business & Sustainable Development Commission’s estimate that implementing the 17 SDGs “could be worth at least US$12tn a year in market opportunities and create 380 million new jobs”.

A reputational benefit is noted by Keith Martell, CEO of First Nations Bank of Canada: “If you’re seen as a good place to put money because you’re not into short termism, if you can show that you’ve got superior returns because you’re not covering the costs of the bad practices that don’t accomplish the SDGs, then you’re a good place to invest.”

‘If you look into the national SDG plans, it’s like looking through a big catalogue of investment and export opportunities.’
—Torben Möger Pedersen, CEO, PensionDanmark

Corporate social responsibility, Bank Jørgensen points out, is no longer about ”the number of tables bought at a charity golf tournament or a contribution to the local opera company”, and boards need to look at the SDGs as “part of their company’s core business, rather than as a separate initiative, a side activity, or a philanthropic endeavour”.

That’s a lot of ‘why’—what about the ‘how’? Bank Jørgensen’s advice on taking the first step is to pick a few of the 17 goals where the business can make the biggest impact. “Boards should ask where they have an opportunity for positive impact, and where they need to shrink or eliminate the business’s negative impact.”

“The company can then explain what it plans to do, when it plans to do it, and which financial and other resources it has allocated, bearing in mind that such initiatives are likely to be measured not in months, but in years and perhaps even decades,” she writes.

Setting specific targets in this way, while explaining risks and managing expectations, she believes, “helps investors and analysts, as well as other stakeholders, track progress, while also proactively defusing future criticism, thus becoming a powerful communications tool for both the board and management”.

And communication matters. “Young people in particular are demanding to know what an organisation’s stance is on broader social and environmental issues. Many of these youngsters—and a growing number of investors, too—are less excited by a company that slashes costs by 30 per cent or moves production from a high-cost to a low-cost country than by one that is helping to combat climate change or improve community health in some impoverished part of the world.”

Stewards of the Future lists guidelines for boards on this issue, together with ten questions that directors might like to ask themselves or use as the basis for board discussion. With Helle Bank Jørgensen’s permission, we’ve reproduced these below:

Guidelines for boards

⇒ Identify the specific UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) most relevant to your company’s business and embed them in your strategy, based on where they could have the greatest impact.

⇒ Put the SDGs on the board agenda and never take them off. Keep asking what risks and opportunities they present.

⇒ Decide which performance indicators to use to measure progress and ensure accountability.

⇒ Evaluate and benchmark all investment and product development decisions against the SDGs.

⇒ While the SDGs set targets for 2030, think ahead to potential risks in 2050. Among the possibilities: biodiversity loss, scarcity of natural resources, and disruptions stemming from climate change, cybersecurity, and data privacy risks.

⇒ Be sincere and realistic about where you are—in terms of both the problem and the solution.

⇒ Encourage partnerships with suitable outside parties.

⇒ Encourage—even better, inspire—board members, management, and stakeholders to set and achieve SDG targets on their own or in partnerships.

10 key questions

1. Which board members are familiar with the UN’s sustainable development goals?

2. How often does the board discuss risks and opportunities related to the UN’s sustainable development goals?

3. Is your company seen as part of the solution to sustainable development or part of the problem? Does perception match reality?

4. Which of the 17 SDGs are most relevant to your business, and to current and future stakeholders? Where do you have the most positive and negative impact?

5. How could those SDGs integrated into your company’s long-term strategy and culture be used to attract a broader range of investors, employees, and other key stakeholders?

6. How are the SDGs included in your company’s scenario planning and in R&D and investment planning?

7. How often do you consider the cost of a lost/missed opportunity due to not embracing the SDGs?

8. Is management doing enough to spur innovation and create new business opportunities based on the SDGs?

9. Have you set up internal reporting processes and performance indicators to track implementation of the SDGs?

10. Are processes in place to ensure appropriate accountability in implementing SDG-related initiatives—including in your company’s risk management processes?

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