Sustainability: What Is on the Minds of CEOs?

The International Chamber of Commerce and the UN Global Compact recently formed a partnership to improve awareness, opportunities, and participation of the private sector in support of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So what is the business impact?

The SDGs are a set of global goals adopted by the UN 193 member states consisting of 17 goals with 169 indicators that integrate economic, social, and environmental aspects. Under the SDGS, businesses will need to collect, assure and report new data. A recent executive survey by Accenture of more than 1,400 CEOs examined the business impact of the SDGs.

A look inside the UN Global Compact
The UN Global Compact is a voluntary initiative based on commitments of chief executive officers (CEOs) to implement universal sustainability principles and to take steps to support United Nations’ (UN) goals. The Global Compact is the world’s largest global corporate sustainability initiative, with more than 8,000 companies and 4,000 non-business participants based in more than 160 countries. It has five key goals: (1) principled business, which involves adherence to the 10 guiding principles of the Compact that center on human rights, labor rights, environmental protection, and anti-corruption practices; (2) strengthening society; (3) leadership commitment, including support of CEOs and their boards of directors; (4) reporting progress, which requires signatories to submit annual reports on sustainability progress; and (5) local action.

Last month (July 2016), the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the UN Global Compact formed a partnership to improve awareness, opportunities, and participation of the private sector in support of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development were adopted by world leaders in September 2015 at a UN summit. The SDGs build on the UN Millennium Development Goals, and the countries participating seek, over the next 15 years, to mobilize efforts to end all forms of poverty, address inequalities, and combat climate change and environmental protection. While the SDGs are not legally binding, governments are expected to take ownership and establish national frameworks for the achievement of the 17 goals. Countries have the primary responsibility for follow-up and review of the progress made in implementing the goals, which will require quality, accessible, and timely data collection. Regional follow-up and review will be based on national-level analyses and contribute to follow-up and review at the global level.

Following the opening of a special SDG Business Forum, UN Global Impact Executive Director Lise Kingo, and ICC Secretary General John Danilovich signed a memorandum of understanding, stressing, among other things: the need to enhance UN engagement with business around the SDGs, and the potential for further increasing business and industry engagement in the implementation of the 2030 agenda. The signing took place on the side lines of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (July 11-20, 2016), an annual platform for reviewing progress and guiding global efforts on the achievement of the SDGs by 2030. ICC and the UN Global Compact were lead organizers of the SDG Business Forum, along with the United Nations Department of Economic & Social Affairs and the ICC-led Global Business Alliance for 2030.

Speaking at the SDG Business Forum High-Level Luncheon, UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki moon called on companies to help jump-start the responsible business practices, innovations, and partnerships needed to achieve the SDGs, telling business leaders: “We will count on you to place integrity at the heart of corporate sustainability and partnership efforts, and to embrace the Global Compact’s ten principles on human rights, labor rights, environmental protection and anti-corruption.”

The SDG Forum co-chair, Lise Kingo, executive director of UN Global Compact, emphasized the need for transparency and standardized metrics for measuring and tracking companies’ impact on the global goals. She committed the UN Global Compact as a vehicle for helping to measure the private sector contribution to the SDGs. To this end, she announced that the UN Global Compact will be retooling its data-collection instruments in order to present relevant global data on business progress to the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and other groups tracking SDG progress in the coming years. The UN Global Compact announced last month the formation of the Partnership Data for SDGs, an initiative being undertaken by the UN Global Compact, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and the UN Office for Partnerships to provide a centralized framework for the UN to publish and access partnership information.

Importance of SDGs to CEOs 
At the 2016 UN Global Compact Leaders Summit in New York, which was held last month (July 2016), Accenture Strategy launched the results of survey, “The United Nations Global Compact-Accenture Strategy CEO Study 2016, Agenda 2030: A Window of Opportunity,” which gained feedback from more than 1,000 CEOs participating in the UN Global Impact. The survey found that 87% of CEOs felt that the SDGs represent “an essential opportunity to rethink approaches to sustainability,” and nearly half (49%) say businesses will be the most important actor in the delivery of the SDGs.

According to the study, more than 70% of the UN Global Compact CEOs surveyed believe that the SDGs provide business with a framework to restructure sustainability efforts, and 78% already see opportunities to contribute to the global goals through their core business. Nearly all (95%) said that they feel a personal responsibility to ensure their company has a core purpose and role in society, and 80% believe that demonstrating a commitment to societal purpose is a differentiator in their industry. Three-quarters of CEOs (75%) report that digital technologies will also be key for achieving the SDGs and achieving sustainable business models.

To accelerate progress, CEOs identify three critical requirements. First, an urgent need to expand coalitions and partnerships across business, government, and civil society to drive greater ambition and achievement on key sustainability issues, including human rights, labor standards, the environment, and anti-corruption. Second, more action at the local level, working with national governments to develop and implement action plans to achieve the SDGs. And third, innovation in new digital technologies and new business models that can enable business to have a greater impact on global challenges.

A key finding from the Accenture study is the level of engagement from executive leadership in sustainability efforts. More than two-thirds of the UN Global Compact CEOs surveyed (69%) report that sustainability issues are already part of board-level discussions, and 64% say these issues play a central role in their strategic planning and business development. A majority of CEOs (59%) also report that their company can accurately quantify the business value of their sustainability initiatives, up from 38% from a previous survey conducted in 2013. Looking beyond their own companies, the CEOs say progress is being replicated across their industries, and 89% say commitment to sustainability is translating into a real impact on their industry.

Despite strong progress in embedding sustainability into corporate strategy and operations, executives still see significant challenges in bringing about the changes that can reshape global markets for sustainability. In particular, business leaders find it difficult to align market incentives to accelerate action. While 88% of CEOs believe that greater integration of sustainability issues will be essential to make progress on sustainability, only 10% say investor pressure is a top factor driving action in their company. Among companies with annual revenues in excess of $1 billion surveyed, 76% of CEOs said they are already engaging investors on the value of sustainability to their business., and 80% believe they have the skills and capabilities to take action on the SDGs.

As CEOs prioritize actions to accelerate the achievement of the SDGs, 86% of them say standardized metrics are needed so companies can measure and track their impact on global goals, and 85% identify the importance of partnerships with governments, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations that connect businesses with local communities. Similarly, 84% call for more local collaboration with national governments on SDG action plans that include clear incentives and accountability frameworks for business.

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