Children say that the water pump is everything to them, it’s like their “soul”. Since the Unicef-supported pump was installed two weeks ago, life has changed dramatically. Before children were travelling three hours to get water, over terrain so rocky that even donkeys struggled to climb the hills. One father says that life was often unbearable; if a family member died they’d have to keep the body for several days before being able to wash it as part of traditional funeral preparations. The children spent all their time travelling to find water, and therefore were unable to go to school. Many of the children were sick too, often having bouts of diarrhoea as the river they travelled too was dirty. For one mother, Fatuma Abdullah, sadly the new pump came too late for her seven year old son, Anwar. His tummy pains were so bad after drinking dirty water that he asked his mother to tie his stomache to try and stop them. Fatuma says, “I think my child’s problem came from drinking dirty water from the river, and drinking the water that our cows drink. There is a severe water shortage here, its our main problem. The journey to collect the water was tough, even the donkeys sometimes miscarried due to the steep hills”. Her son is still alive but in a poorly way at home. She says at least she doesn’t have to fear that her other children will fall ill now though, families are “joyful” about the pump and the children are now able to go to school. Water Point, Lode Lamhffo Kabele, Sire Woreda, Arsi Zone. © UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Ayene

Constituting Switzerland’s first Global Compact Dialogue, over 200 business people, government and NGO representatives, as well as journalists and students, gathered in early February in Berne to discuss what appears to be a new reality: responsible and sustainable business approaches are becoming mainstream.

Growing numbers of companies are realizing that becoming more involved with the 117 Sustainable Development Goals not only makes good business sense, but can bring about a veritable developmental shift. “There is clearly a change in mindset among those companies,” said Ole Lund Hansen, chief of the UN Global Compact’s Local Networks, a world-wide initiative of 160 countries, incorporating over 8,000 companies and 4,000 institutions representing business, civil society, academia, industry associations, and media. (See article on the Firmenich-Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation latrine partnership)

A boy runs through the smoke of burning garbage near the Niger River in Bamako, Mali on December 9th, 2012. PHOTO: UNICEF

Officially, the SDGs have the objective of “building a better world” by 2030. Basically, observed Manuel Sager, Director General of the Swiss Development Corporation (SDC), “We need to use the SDGs as a business model to invest and innovate.” This includes creating partnerships between the private and public sectors s a means of fighting corruption and promoting education. The SDC already has 30 such partnerships for disaster response, agriculture, and water technologies. Nevertheless, while the upper echelons of firms such as Swiss Post (61,000 employees), Switzerland’s third largest employer, understand the concepts of the SDGs, they remain a totally alien concept for most ordinary people. Swiss Post’s head of communications, Marco Imboden, admitted that many of his company’s own employees have no idea what an SDG is. “This may take years to seep down,” he noted.

Everyone needs to be responsible: not just governments and companies

There are clearly numerous challenges for making more socially responsible and sustainable approaches work. As pointed out by Global Compact’s Antonio Hautle, this should not be solely the responsibility of governments, NGOs and companies. “Everyone should be responsible,” he said. “Fortunately, we are not starting at zero.” Switzerland is already well-advanced. “What we can do is bring the agenda of business and world development ahead.”

Chin State, remote and mountainous and one of the poorest regions of Burma/Myanmar, was also among the hardest-hit by floods. PHOTO: UNICEF

Sustainable development is far more economically productive 

The main challenge is to go beyond business as usual without simply ticking the boxes or promoting “greenwashing” for PR purposes. “There will always be conflicts in attaining these goals,” explained Markus Mugglin of the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. “But there are clearly many ways of expressing one’s interest.” Another issue is how to bridge the pressures of implementing simpler short-term options against more sustainable, longer-term ones. As several participants pointed out, while genuine sustainable development may at first seem difficult, if not costly, the reality is that in the end it is far more economically productive both for consumers and shareholders.

For Katrin Muff of the Business School of Lausanne, “there really is no other option than developing more sustainable economies.” While the SDGs make sense, she said, they are also “rather generic.” So how does one turn them into effective tools for business? One has to ensure they have local and global relevance, which should not be too difficult given that they represent trillions of dollars of market opportunities. The key, Muff said, is how to engage people on the outside. How can we eliminate poverty and hunger? What is going to keep the CEO awake at night?”

As they stand, the SDGs act as an ambitious guide to the world’s most critical problems, whether poverty, food security, health, or climate change. But according to the 2017 Global Opportunity Report produced by UN Global Compact and other partners, they also represent the world’s largest marketing opportunities, such as the development of new technologies, robotics and big data, or by taking advantage of possibilities on the “edges” of existing markets. This is particularly attractive to small and medium-size companies, which are “more purpose-driven,” it said.

For Robert Heinzer of the Victorinox Group, which not only makes renowned Swiss Army knives but now also clothes, “it is part of running a company successfully.” Operating since the late 19th century, Victorinox’s emphasis always has been on job creation. “This is the basis of our business,” he said. “If you don’t create and maintain employment, you can’t support the SDGs properly.”

Investment is key

A further key factor is the role of sustainable investors. According to Sabine Döbeli, CEO of Swiss Sustainable Finance, they play a critical function within companies. “Their engagement adds exceptional value,” She said. In 2015, sustainable investments reached an estimated 10 trillion Euros worldwide, she noted. Swiss sustainable investments alone now stand at CHF 191.9 billion (180 billion Euros) since 2013.

Speaking as a civil society representative, Laurent Martile of Alliance Sud, a Lausanne-based NGO, agreed that business is a vital partner for achieving the SDGs. In 2013, industrial countries invested $778 billion in the developing world, he said, while public aid barely accounted for 3 per cent of investments needed. “So clearly, the business community is crucial for bringing about real change.”

…But how to put the message across

For many, however, a vital question remains: how to put the message across. For Joanna Hafenmayer, founder of the Responsible Corporate Leadership Forum (RECOL), advocates need to speak the language that everyone understands. “I often find that it is like looking at an iceberg. We talk, but we’re not really doing anything. People wish to have an emotional involvement that they can support.” Swiss Post’s Michael Heim further stressed the importance of communicating with people who may not be involved, but wish to understand. “For me, what is central is that we do not isolate ourselves and are not able to move. These elements need to be translated into a language that people understand, such as making it part of education. We cannot expect stakeholders to learn our language. It has to be the other way around.”

By Daniel Wermus and Edward Girardet, editors. 

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