Advancing Sustainable Development Goals through Business Leadership

19 October, 2019 12:00 AM printer

Advancing Sustainable Development Goals through Business Leadership

Nayma Iftakhar

Leadership is the art of mobilising others that intend significant changes, specifically to sustain the significant processes of change where the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. SDGs concentrate on the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice. In addition, Business Leadership aims to inspire all business to take leading action in support of the achievement of all Sustainable Development Goals.

“You can’t build peace on empty stomachs”- Norman Borlaug. Despite progress in recent years, the number of people living in extreme poverty globally remains unacceptably high. Poverty impedes the full participation of people in society and the economy. A society free from poverty is more peaceful, stable, innovative, and equal. Vitally, all business has a responsibility to prevent and address human and labour rights violations, and it should identify and avoid practices that perpetuate poverty traps. Business should respect fundamental human and labour rights; adopt responsible taxation practices; and ensure that end-to-end operations do not exacerbate poverty in any way. This includes providing decent work (work that is productive and delivers a living wage); security in the workplace; social protection for families; better prospects for personal development and social integration; freedom for people to express their concerns, organise, and participate in the decisions that affect their lives; and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men. Business should also adopt responsible taxation practices and should robustly assess whether its activities carry the risk of contributing to poverty, directly or indirectly.

Equality is fundamental to a stable, just, prosperous, and peaceful society. In many countries, income inequality is at its highest level in the past half century. Further, while there has been a narrowing in the average incomes between developed countries and some developing countries, average incomes in other developing countries have fallen further behind those in developed countries. Many groups, such as women, racial minorities and indigenous populations, still do not have equal access to opportunities - facing exclusion from business ownership and corporate decision making and discrimination related to wages, employment, and access to financial services. Contrary to the perception of many businesses, the private sector has a crucial role to play in addressing the systemic challenge of reducing inequality. Business impacts inequality through the decisions it takes on how to distribute the economic value it generates, including by deciding whether it pays living wages and how it structures executive pay; by paying or not paying taxes (in different countries) that are essential for funding inequality-reducing social security and public investment in health, education, and infrastructure; through the way it uses its economic and political influence to shape the marketplace and its regulatory environment. At the same time, the systemic challenges reinforce the need for collaborative action bringing together all stakeholders, especially Governments. In support of these collective efforts, all companies should pay their fair share of taxes, practice non-discrimination, comply with social and environmental regulations, and respect and support human rights. Responsible tax practice also involves progressive alignment of economic activities and tax liabilities (tax planning), country-by-country reporting on tax-relevant information, and transparent and responsible engagement with tax authorities.

Business plays a vital role in holding the increase of the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. Business, together with Governments, must act urgently and decisively to fundamentally change the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their products and processes in order to achieve global net zero emissions by the second half of the century. Businesses also play a central role in anticipation, building resilience, and adaptation to the current and expected impacts of climate change.

Businesses have a large impact on global health and wellbeing. A business’s own operations and supply chain can have direct negative impacts on health including through local pollution, disposal of hazardous waste, and health and safety standards on the work floor. The use of chemicals in the workplace can negatively impact workers’ health and make work particularly hazardous for children. According to the ILO, more than 2.3 million people die every year as a result of occupational accidents or work-related diseases in addition to 317 million on-the-job accidents. Annual worker related deaths in agricultural supply chains alone are reported at 170,000. Six per cent of all cancers are caused by occupational exposure to carcinogens. Business products and services can also impact on health: negatively as, for example, in the case of unhealthy foods, addictive substances, and defective products; and positively, for example through the development and provision of affordable medication and medical devices. Regardless of its industry or sector, business should recognize health in all its forms as a human right as defined by the World Health Organization, and it should to act accordingly. Business should also recognize the right to safe and healthy working conditions as set out in the International Covenant on Economic & Social Rights, taking steps to understand, monitor, and minimise negative health impacts throughout their end-to-end operations. As universal health coverage is often a public policy priority, businesses should ensure that their activities allow government to achieve its goals, including through responsible tax practices. Businesses that are directly involved in provision of health care and medication must ensure that their practices do not undermine access to healthcare and medicines for poor and vulnerable populations through inappropriate pricing, lobbying, intellectual property protection, or similar practices.

Businesses are impacted by and directly impact the quality and quantity of water resources through the production of goods and services, primarily through consumption of water and discharge into shared water resources. In water-stressed areas, these impacts are more acutely felt and where businesses need to pay particular attention. Ninety per cent of water consumed in the world today is used for agricultural or industrial purposes, highlighting the crucial role that businesses must play in promoting the responsible use and effective governance of global water resources. All businesses must respect the rights of communities to water and sanitation and are encouraged to support government, business and other stakeholder efforts to provide universal access to clean water and sanitation. This involves understanding impacts on local ecosystems and communities, particularly the cumulative impacts that businesses have on water resources; monitoring own water use; and taking appropriate action ranging from internal (improving water efficiency, reducing water inputs, investing in wastewater treatment, water reuse) to external collaborations to address risks and impacts in water intensive sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture, and extractives.

Businesses have an essential part to play in driving the financing and development of technologies needed to achieve SDGs. The private sector accounts for half of the world’s energy consumption, so it has significant scope to increase energy efficiency and source energy from renewable sources. Businesses supply energy and energy-consuming products and services to consumers, which they can make clean and efficient in use. They can also make these affordable to enhance access for underserved populations.

Businesses play a key role as responsible stewards of oceans, seas, and marine resources. Oceans underpin the global economy. Maritime transport can impact ocean habitats by emitting exhaust, leaking chemicals and dumping waste into waters. Extractive activities including fishing, offshore drilling for oil and gas, and mineral mining can cause great damage to ocean environments if not managed sustainably. Land-based activities also generate by-products that are carried to oceans and disrupt marine ecosystems through pollution and eutrophication of habitats. All businesses have a responsibility to abide by environmental law and international treaties on the protection of marine ecosystems.

Business should respect minimum applicable environmental laws governing pollution, land-use, and life on land. Responsible business practice also adopts and integrates international standards that have been developed to support the core principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Nagoya Protocol. Crucially, these international standards recognize that natural resources are not infinite, and that genetic resources should be shared equitably.

Although it is the responsibility of Governments to provide free education at the primary and secondary levels, business can play an important role in supporting families and Governments and can provide opportunities for further training and education to workers. Business has a responsibility to provide living wages and decent working conditions to their employees so that employees can fulfill their role as caregivers by sending children to school without having to seek supplementary income. Critically, business should and ensure that there is zero child labour across its operations and supply chain – a key barrier to education for children worldwide. Business is uniquely placed to ensure skills-development for working adults and can take proactive steps to support education at all levels.

Businesses have a vitally important role to play in respecting and supporting peace, justice, and strong institutions, both globally and in the countries in which they operate. Now more than ever, a growing number of business leaders are recognizing they have a crucial role to play in advancing anti-bribery and corruption, peace and rule of law efforts, as a complement to, not substitute for, government action. In a society that is based on the rule of law, all actors - including Governments, businesses, and individuals - are accountable to clear, fair, and predictable laws, regulations and impartial institutions. As such, businesses should respect the rule of law, and, wherever possible, work with all relevant stakeholders including Governments, civil society, and non-governmental organizations to strengthen institutions and the rule of law, working as a complement to Governments. Businesses can also strive to achieve zero violence, abuse, exploitation, and corruption across their own operations and supply chain while businesses operating in areas of conflict should regularly consult with international bodies and, where possible, relevant Governments and embassies to ensure that their activities contribute to advancing peace, justice, and strong institutions.

Business leadership can play the leading role to achieve sustainable development goals without any shadow of doubt. At the same time, businesses should respect the lines of separation that are critical for well-functioning governments taking care that their involvement in SDGs does not cross into domains that are exclusively the remit of government.


The writer is a Lecturer, College of Business Administration (CBA), International University of Business Agriculture & Technology (IUBAT), Bangladesh