Sustainable Development

The global goals need a business, as well as people, agenda

Badr Jafar
Chief Executive Officer, Crescent Enterprises
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Sustainable Development

The 193 member states of the United Nations last month unveiled a new global agenda for sustainable development. The 15-year plan, titled “Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development,” is set to be formally endorsed by world leaders in New York later this month and will come into force on 1 January 2016.

It certainly is an ambitious vision. According to the UN, the plan’s 17 goals and 169 targets “aim to end poverty, promote prosperity and people’s wellbeing while protecting the environment by 2030.” Building on the Millennium Development Goals, reported to have helped lift more than 700 million people out of poverty since 1990, the new agenda is underpinned by a bold pledge that “no one will be left behind”.

There is nothing new about sustainable development. Without embarking on a lengthy history, the term dates back at least as far as the Brundtland Report of 1987. However the UN believes that what makes its 2030 plan unique is that “it calls for action by all countries, poor, rich and middle-income” to make sustainable development a reality. In fact, its member states have indicated that a ‘business as usual’ approach will not get the job done and have called for “intensified international cooperation on many fronts” to help implement the new agenda.


The five pillars of the new 2030 agenda are People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnership. I believe the ‘sixth P’ should be “Private Sector”, because governments and multilateral organisations cannot solve all of the world’s problems on their own. A step in the right direction was the creation of the UN Global Compact in 2000, to help companies align their strategies with the global sustainability agenda. With more than 8,000 businesses and 4,000 non-business participants recruited in the last fifteen years, the UN Global Compact represents a deep well of private sector energy that must be rallied behind the new vision.

With this in mind, I’d like to highlight three of the most important elements of the new global agenda for 2030 in which the business community can have the biggest impact:

One of the most obvious is the empowerment of women. According to the 2030 agenda, “women and girls must enjoy equal access to quality education, economic resources and political participation as well as equal opportunities with men and boys for employment, leadership and decision-making.” The strong business case for increasing female participation in the workforce and in business decision-making has been well documented. Despite the overwhelming evidence, we still have a long way to go. According to research published by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, women constitute only 5% of CEOs and 17% of board members across all Fortune 500 companies. In the UK, there are reportedly only five female CEOs in the entire FTSE 100. Business leaders in all regions of the world must work harder to address the imbalances if we are to unlock this immense value.

The environment has always been at the heart of sustainable development. The 2030 agenda envisions “a world in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources – from air to land, from rivers, lakes and aquifers to oceans and seas – are sustainable.”

Seeing the writing on the wall, businesses and governments in many countries are making important changes to improve the sustainability of their natural resource use. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), more than 164 countries have now adopted renewable energy targets, up from only 43 in 2005. The drive for sustainability is also creating massive commercial opportunities. According to a report published by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in 2013, global business opportunities in the sustainability sector could be worth between US$3 trillion and US$10 trillion annually in 2050.

Finally, there is a unique role for business in helping to spread the benefits of sustainable development to all. The 2030 agenda envisions “a world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity, the rule of law, justice, equality and non-discrimination”. It draws a direct link between “the full realization of human potential” and the elusive goal of “shared prosperity”. These ideals are also at the heart of the principles of inclusive growth, ensuring that all people have meaningful opportunities to benefit from economic development.

All people, countries and regions can do better at fulfilling this promise. We must accept that a lot of the volatility our world is currently experiencing could have been avoided if social and economic opportunities had been more widely available. The deepening refugee crisis confounding governments and NGOs today is also symptomatic of a world in which many see no light at the end of the tunnel for themselves or their families. These are complex challenges, but as job creators and catalysts for economic activity, well-governed businesses must be a big part of any solution.

When the new global vision for sustainable development was unveiled last month, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, referred to it as “the people’s agenda”. It truly is a call to people all over the world to make the small and large choices today that will benefit future generations. However, it is also a business agenda. After all, any business is ultimately a group of people working together to achieve a common goal. Forward-thinking businesses that can embrace this ambitious vision will be among the first to reap the benefits of a more sustainable world.

Have you read?
Why gender equality will make or break the SDGs
6 reasons why we need clean water for all
4 ways countries are successfully fighting hunger

Author: Badr Jafar is the Founder of Pearl Initiative and Chief Executive of Crescent Enterprises

Image: A officer worker walks across a footbridge in Hong Kong’s Central district October 10, 2008. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

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Sustainable DevelopmentEconomic Growth
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