Of course, the headlines belonged to the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. But the teenager — whose scolding of global leaders was beamed around the world — has not been the only one wagging her finger in New York this week. Chief executives of many of the world’s largest organizations suggest that business is not doing enough to meet the challenges posed by climate change and related issues.
A report published at the United Nations today by the United Nations Global Compact and the business consultancy Accenture finds that just 21% of CEOs believe business is playing a critical role in contributing to the global sustainability goals and that fewer than half are integrating sustainability into their business operations. Despite pockets of progress and innovation since the goals were agreed in 2015, socioeconomic, geopolitical and technological uncertainties have distracted CEOs’ sustainability efforts.
The study draws on insights from more than 1,000 CEOs and together with the UN Global Compact Progress Report, which surveyed nearly 1,600 companies from more than 100 countries, it forms the most comprehensive research to date on business’s contribution to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Lise Kingo, CEO and Executive Director of the United Nations Global Compact, said: “With less than 4,000 days remaining until the 2030 target, business leaders are not content with current progress and are calling for their sectors and peers to step-up and turn commitment into action. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented and requires all stakeholders, including governments, policymakers, business leaders, investors, shareholders, civil society and academia, to work together to accelerate change. We’re confident change is coming and are particularly pleased with the progress from the 87 companies that have announced this week that they are leading the way towards a 1.5°C future.”
In the four years since the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (also known as the Global Goals) were agreed, there has been some progress, with people in general living better lives. However, advancement towards most of the Global Goals has been sluggish or even reversed. Famine, extreme climate events, overpopulation, water scarcity, gender-based violence and a rise in armed conflict and extremism continue to define lives around the world. CEOs appear to acknowledge the problem. According to the report, CEOs believe there is real opportunity for the global business community to embrace the Global Goals to drive growth, efficiency, reputation and innovation. Leading companies are already doing these things to transform their organizations. Nearly three-quarters of CEOs believe that with increased commitment and action, businesses can play a crucial role in contributing to the Global Goals. Peter Lacy, senior managing director, Accenture Strategy, which produced the report, said: “With sustainability being integral to the competitive agility of every organization — and increasingly important to growth, profitability and trust — it’s time for leaders to ensure the Global Goals are firmly embedded in corporate strategy and company purpose. Technology may hold the true key to unlocking progress on the Global Goals. The speed of digital, biological and physical innovations will continue to be enormous in the decade ahead, and business must harness and align investments with global environmental, social and governance outcomes”.
Noting that the tone of this report was more sombre than previous ones he had been involved in producing, Lacy added that “people are starting to join things up.” It was not just climate change, it was also single-use plastics and other issues, he said.
Nevertheless, Lacy did not challenge the increasingly widespread belief that capitalism is due something of a re-examination. “If we cannot show that markets can work the system’s legitimacy is at risk,” he said. And he added that there was no point in pointing the finger at business or vice versa. “We are in this together.”
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