Innovation for Sustainable Development: The role of private sector collaboration
19 May 2016

​The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have ushered in a new era of global development objectives that ambitiously aim to reduce greenhouse gases, eliminate poverty, and increase economic opportunities around the world. The active participation of business is a principle driver in achieving these goals.

The second plenary of the GRI Global Conference explored the vast potential of private sector innovation and collaboration, and the role of government in supporting the breakthroughs needed to achieve the SDGs.

High expectations for business
“It is a shameful truth that 850 million people still live in extreme poverty in the world, but the prospect of achieving the SDGs renews my faith in humanity,” declared Teresa Fogelberg, GRI Chief Executive, “The SDGs provide us with a moral compass. With new partnerships, a united commitment and a ‘can do’ attitude, we can achieve great things.”

The private sector plays a crucial role in helping countries meet the SDGs, and now, more than ever, there is a greater need for alignment, measurement and communication through the sustainability reporting process to enable a strong private sector contribution to the SDGs.
The Right Honorable Desmond Swayne TD MP Minister of State at the Department for International Development UK spoke about the vital role of the private sector in creating the inclusive economic growth needed to achieve the SDGs. “The SDGs come down to one thing - jobs,” said RT Hon Desmond Swayne. “A job is a passport to life, and 40,000 people are leaving their homes every day, leaving behind everything that they know, in pursuit of better jobs. Over the next decade, we will need 600 million new jobs to resolve this current crisis and to avoid fueling future conflicts that stem from unemployment. Governments can promote the circumstances for inclusive economic growth but private sector-led investment is the only sustainable engine of inclusive economic growth.”
The business case for sparking innovation
Ernesto Ciorra, Head of Innovation and Sustainability at Enel, focused on the need to think differently and introduced the concept of ‘innovability’: “Sustainability and innovation are more than just embedded in the business. They are the business.”

The multinational energy company, Enel, has been at the forefront of environmental and social sustainability. “We aren’t sustainable unless we innovate, and in order to innovate, we have to be sustainable,” explained Ernesto Ciorra, “Within companies, people respect the rules, and do not think differently. We need to shift paradigms. We need people to break the rules, and we need people with big ideas to innovate. We need to involve people from outside the company, outside the sector, in the form of international networks and greater collaboration.”
Aligning policies with action
Governments and market regulators have been increasing their activity on policies to further the sustainable development agenda in recent years. Since 2013, the number of sustainability reporting instruments around the world has more than doubled, driven by strong growth in Europe, Asia Pacific and Latin America. This is a key finding from the 4th version of ‘Carrots & Sticks’, a joint publication by GRI, KPMG International, and The Centre for Corporate Governance in Africa, which was launched yesterday at the GRI Global Conference.

Linda Kromjong, Secretary-General, International Organization for Employers (IOE), urged governments to go further, to take the lead and ensure frameworks and national action plans (NAPs) are in place to allow for greater business contributions to the SDGs. “There are currently only a handful of NAPs worldwide. The UK and the Netherlands, for example have created plans, but these are not enough. NAPs set a framework in which the SDGs can fit.”
Advancing the contributions of small and medium-sized enterprises
Along with the call on governments to do more, there was also a call for mobilizing the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) around the world. The sheer critical mass that SMEs represent within the business community offers great potential for effecting significant change in the sustainability landscape. GRI and IOE, the world’s largest private sector network, recently announced a partnership agreement outlining their intent to stimulate business action on sustainable development.

Linda Kromjong outlined two main hurdles to achieving the SDGs during the plenary: reaching the vast majority of SMEs that make up the business landscape (notably the small enterprises); and bridging cultures to reach organizations in, for example, the Gulf region, Latin America, and other places, where ‘forcing’ them to comply with regulations simply won’t work. “We need to push and support in a balanced manner,” urged Linda. “We need to team up. We will never be ‘issue free’, and we will never have a perfect world. But the way in which companies deal with the issues at hand will make them better employers.”
Tackling issues on the ground
“Innovation is needed to reach every last child,” said Elisabeth Dahlin, Secretary-General, Save the Children Sweden. “The private sector can move quicker and smarter than other actors, and companies need to integrate children’s rights into their supply chains.” Elizabeth urged organizations to go beyond compliance and philanthropy, and to form true partnerships to help achieve the SDGs. “Companies need to step out of their comfort zones and be truly innovative.”
Short-termism is also not the answer; there needs to be a long-term plan in place. Save the Children’s ten-year strategy with Ikea was mentioned – an initiative which aims to bring transparency to the issues of child labor and safety throughout Southeast Asia. “We need to work in a sustainable way, through a multi-stakeholder approach, to reach those in extreme poverty. We need joint strategies, and the flexibility of developing different approaches for different companies.”

Dante Pesce, Chair UN Working Group on Business & Human Rights, discussed the importance of viewing the SDGs through a human rights lens: “Forty-seven percent of the SDGs are directly related to human rights and over 80% are indirectly related. Businesses need to start approaching the SDGs with a ‘do no harm’ attitude, to minimize and/or avoid negative impacts first, before they start ticking off their achievements. For this, they need due diligence.”
Dante also called for the speeding up and scaling up of frameworks that already exist, to be effective on a much larger scale. “The scale of problems is so vast, we need to be much more ambitious. We need collaboration and cross border initiatives, and we need to show progress. But we also need to be realistic, and we need to address issues with humility – we are not perfect, but if we show progress in an incremental way, we can build trust, and action.”
Making the change
Enel’s Ernesto Ciorra called on all of us to make the change individually: “It is impossible to change if we don’t start that change from within ourselves. We too often forget to break the rules and forget to nurture creativity in companies. We should remember Gandhi’s famous quote, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’.”