Sustainable Development

How can business help us meet the Global Goals?

Syrian refugee students in second grade wait for the start of their first lesson of the year at Fatih Sultan Mehmet Primary School in Ankara, Turkey, September 28, 2015.

Leading companies are already turning today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities. Image: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Jessica Long
Managing Director and Chief Strategy Officer, Closed Loop Partners
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Sustainable Development

Think about the state of our world today. One in 10 people live on less than $1.90 per day, with 20% of people in developing countries living below the poverty line. Almost 800 million people are undernourished and 57 million children do not attend primary school. Meanwhile, 2.5 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation. Women earn 24% less than men. With no action on climate change, the world’s temperature could increase by 4.5 degrees Celsius.

Now, imagine our world in 2050. Two-thirds of the global population will be living in cities. Seventy percent additional agriculture output is needed. Twenty percent of the population is over the age of 60; and 80% of this aging population lives in developed nations. The demand for constrained resources will grow to 130 billion tons (from 50 billion tons today).

These sound like challenges for governments and the international development sector, right? In September 2015, the 193 member nations of the United Nations adopted the most ambitious development agenda yet to address the world’s greatest challenges: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 goals aimed at ending poverty, reducing inequalities and fixing climate change.

So what does this have to do with business? They could fulfill their social responsibility obligations via philanthropic giving to help with the challenges above. Or, they could look at the challenges as opportunities. Let’s take a different view of the world. By 2020, the organic fruits and vegetables market is expected to be $62.9 billion. The market for telemedicine solutions will grow to $34 billion. Healthcare solutions for the base of the pyramid will surge to $87.7 billion. Revenues from micro-grids will soar to nearly $20 billion. Twenty million electric vehicles will be on the road; with 50% of global vehicle production coming from developing countries. And the war for talent will find its workers in emerging markets.

Leading companies are already turning today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities. And business can leverage the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework for growth, as discussed in a new Accenture Strategy report, produced in collaboration with the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders Community. The report, Corporate Disruptors: How business is turning the world’s greatest challenges into opportunities, was a topic of discussion at this year’s Annual Meeting in Davos.

In our report, we discuss how leading companies view the SDGs as a way to help them migrate from corporate social responsibility to corporate social opportunity, thereby becoming more competitive, resilient and “future-proof” in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, and complex world. Some companies even see corporate social responsibility as their reason for being, developing new business models to capitalize on the opportunities of the SDGs.

Consider, for example, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)’s re-investment of 20% of its profit in the least developed countries to develop healthcare infrastructure through training of frontline health workers. Since 2009, the programme trained close to 40,000 medical workers who have reached out to 11 million people across 35 countries. For GSK, this has positively impacted their brand as a responsible pharmaceutical provider and has helped develop a future market for products and services.

Or, consider Dangote Group, the largest manufacturing conglomerate in West Africa. They have invested close to $6.5 million in the Dangote Academy in Nigeria to address its difficulty finding employees with the right technical skills. The initiative is helping reduce talent sourcing costs, while providing vocational training to young people.

These are just two of the many examples highlighted in our report of how leading and innovative companies are responding to global challenges with opportunities that grow and protect their businesses. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The potential for business is massive - from new consumer groups to growing demand for sustainable products and services to clean technologies that reduce cost to a new and talented workforce. The SDGs provide both a guiding light and a practical framework for companies that want to grow their business, increase competiveness and create sustainable value.

Some companies will naturally align with one or two goals, maybe even a handful of them. Others may touch all 17, and still others may choose to leverage non-aligned goals (or their underlying business opportunities) to move into new markets or create new businesses. The key is that this is not an all-or-nothing scenario.

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