A before B

On 25 September 2015, 193 Member States adopted the UN Global Goals. Since then an increasing number of businesses committed to contribute to the fulfilment of the goals. But is the strategic work with the Global Goals sufficient to demonstrate responsible business conduct? Is there a tendency to forget ‘respect for human rights’ in the work to fulfil the same?

On the occasion of Global Goals Week, it is important to remember that while the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) constitute a great opportunity for strategic CSR (or creating shared value), such focus cannot and must not replace business efforts to meet the global minimum standard for responsible business conduct; namely the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs); as incorporated into the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

While the SDGs provide a prioritised and measurable direction for the next 15 years for the states of the world, the harsh truth is that socially sustainable development, resulting in lasting peace, cannot be achieved without the states’ universal respect for, protection of, and fulfilment of all human rights.

Naturally, one wonders why the term human rights, the founding basis of the UN, is not explicitly mentioned in the SDGs; especially, as 9 of the goals obviously originate from human rights. The additional goals are concerned with pressing issues around the environment. Consequently any business that respects human rights (policy, due diligence, access to remedy) automatically assesses if the business has adverse impacts on 9 of the SDGs (social sustainability). Unfortunately, this does not apply in reverse. So even though your business manages to assess whether it has adverse impacts on the SDGs, it does not mean that it ‘respects human rights’.

Hence, the SDGs are especially relevant to the business’ strategic CSR efforts; that is where the business manages to link products, competencies, or services to continuously contributing to the fulfilment of significant elements of sustainable development – or to reverse particular CSR risks to advantages. In 1999, when we suggested to bring the ‘right to health’ into focus in Novo Nordisk’s work with social sustainability, the time frame exceeded 15 years and it was based on an analysis of all 48 human rights. The strategic focus lasts and will continue to last as long as the foundation for democratic societies and human rights lasts. The fact that the 3rd global goal for 2015-2030 is based on the right to health, merely increases Novo Nordisk’s opportunity to create further value from its efforts; efforts that hitherto brought the company great success.

The expressed fear that the SDGs grant businesses the opportunity to ‘pick and choose’ between the goals, should not be seen as a fear, but rather as a given. No business will be able to work with all 17 goals and appertaining 169 targets, written for states, in an appropriate way. The SDGs provide a much appreciated opportunity for businesses that, so far, were not able to implement strategic CSR – also referred to as ‘Creating Shared Value’ by Porter and Kramer. For those who already apply strategic CSR the SDGs may assist in increasing the effect and value of such efforts. Thus, it is evident that businesses choose the SDGs that make the most sense for them – if any.

It is similarly evident that, if the contribution to a few human rights or SDGs constitutes the company’s full CSR activity, the efforts can be categorised as ‘cherry-picking’. The novelty and excitement around the SDGs can easily enable effective branding based on a SDGs focus in the short run; and impress top management. However, if the business by doing so neglects the long haul of implementing the global minimum standard for responsible business conduct, the UNGPs, the warm feeling may quickly be grow cold. We all know the expression ‘empty vessels make most noise’.

We witnessed businesses make use of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs 2000-2015), and the work on the new SDGs may both enable strengthening of existing strategic focus areas or provide a basis establishing such areas. However, the SDGs are insufficient for effective risk management. So keep in mind the shrewd advice from the International Organisation of Employers, World Business Council for Sustainable Development and Global Business Initiative at the launch of the SDGs: Remember to also focus on the fundamental effort; the implementation of the UNGPs. It is wise to put A before B.

Businesses that are well versed on social sustainability will quickly recognise that the work with the SDGs and the UNGPs do not contain any contradictions; quite the contrary, the two instruments can well support each other and the company the best possible way through the next 14 years, where after the SDGs will expire, and most likely be replaced by yet another 15-year plan for the global community. The UNGPs will remain!


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