The UN Global Compact’s aim is to mobilise a global movement of sustainable companies and stakeholders to create a better world. The UK Network delivers an extensive programme of activity to support UN Global Compact Participants to operationalise and promote the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). On the 6th November 2018, the UN Global Compact ran a workshop at Burges Salmon in Bristol to discuss sustainable development and explore the ways that business can align their operations with these goals.

Michael Barlow, Partner, Burges Salmon

Michael, Partner and specialist in environmental law at Burges Salmon, opened the event. He detailed the firm’s commitment to sustainability, both in the operations of the business – i.e. cutting down waste – as well as pro-bono consulting for environmental charities and action groups. He also highlighted the importance of the SDGs as a new way for businesses to challenge and focus their impact.

Burges Salmon have focused on goals that they believe can make a difference locally, such as through their social mobility work with schools, or through sharing their expertise in environmental law. He concluded that Burges Salmon, and business more generally, have an important role to play in influencing the change needed to meet the SDGs – the goals provide a welcome opportunity for further collaboration and partnership.

Ian Townsend, Chief Executive, Bristol Green Capital Partnership CIC

Bristol Green Capital Partnership (BGCP) is a unique network of organisations that have pledged to work towards a sustainable city with a high quality of life for all. Chief Executive Ian Townsend spoke about how the partnership supports 850 members to achieve a sustainable city, essentially BGCP connect and amplify their members’ sustainability efforts.

The key focus for BCGP in 2019 will be on environmental equity and building a circular economy in the city. Ian argued that the SDGs cannot be achieved without cities contributing to them. There needs to be a shared language around sustainability that all stakeholders – politicians, businesses and civil society – can use. Much of this work is currently being carried out by the Bristol SDG Alliance, which brings together a range of organisations and individuals to raise awareness of the SDGs and its use as a framework for the city’s future sustainable and resilient development. Ultimately, Ian said, there needs to be effective cross-sector collaboration in order to achieve these goals and build a sustainable Bristol.

Jaya Chakrabarti, Vice-President, Business West – The Initiative

Jaya was next to speak in her capacity as Vice President of the Initiative – a leadership team within Business West which enables the business community to positively influence the way the area is shaped, managed and developed. The Initiative works with Local, Regional and National Government, the West of England LEP, the third sector with the collective goal to create an economically and culturally prosperous region, devoid of inequality and poverty.

She praised Bristol’s track record when it came to positive collaboration between business and other regional stakeholders – for example with the successful campaign to bring in a directly-elected mayor in 2012, to the ambitious anti-slavery partnership known as the TISC Report – a collective mission to tackle modern slavery with corporate and third sector partners. She argued that business can really make a difference if it works in partnership with stakeholders and emphasised that that the Initiative and Business West was a powerful network for sharing good business practice and improving the city.

Steve Kenzie, Executive Director, UN Global Compact Network UK

Steve introduced the UN Global Compact as the largest responsible business network driving forward sustainable growth. It is a non-binding United Nations pact to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies, and to report on their implementation.

The organisation undertook some research on the general levels of awareness of the SDGs in different countries. They found that the UK had the worst level of awareness in Europe with only 14% of respondents saying they had heard of the SDGs, this is compared with 73% in Finland. Steve emphasised the need for a greater awareness in the business sector, if we are to make the SDGs a reality.

He gave a brief history of the development and ideas behind the SDGs. These were conceptualised at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. The objective was to produce a set of universal goals that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world. The SDGs replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which started a global effort in 2000 to tackle the indignity of poverty.

The SDGs are a bold commitment to build upon the MDGs, and tackle some of the more pressing challenges facing the world today. It consists of 17 Goals which are all interconnected, meaning success in one will have an impact on success for others. For example: dealing with the threat of climate change impacts how we manage our natural resources, achieving gender equality or better health helps eradicate poverty, and fostering peace and inclusive societies will reduce inequalities and help economies prosper. More information on the SDGs can be found here.

Steve finished by arguing that alignment with the SDGs could be good for businesses: helping to improve corporate reputation; opening up new business opportunities; and helping to attract the best and brightest staff, who often care about working for a company with the right ethical framework.

Laura Callaghan-Pace, Engagement Lead – SDGs Team, Department for International Development

Laura detailed the work that the Department for International Development is undertaking in accordance with SDG obligations. Next July the UK will present a voluntary national review (VNR). The VNR will highlight the UK’s contributions to delivering all 17 SDGs. Around 100 countries have already completed and presented their own VNRs.

The UK’s VNR will consist of 17 chapters, one relating to each SDG. The team uses data provided by the ONS and will work with Government departments to highlight the country’s progress towards each goal. This will be a cross-Whitehall process which reflects Government work, as well as the activities of civil society, businesses and local communities. Any stakeholder has the opportunity to contribute to the VNR by submitting evidence here – Government are actively seeking case studies from a variety of businesses on how they have aligned with the SDGs.

Catherine Rushforth, Head of UK Responsibility & Sustainability Policy & UK Foundation Representative, Airbus

The final speaker, Catherine Rushford, spoke about how Airbus has put alignment with the SDGs at the heart of the company. Airbus has 130,000 employees over 180 sites in 35 countries. It has been committed to the UN’s SDGs since 2003. Airbus believe that sustainability drives responsibility and innovation, and it has helped that Airbus CEO Tom Enders is very engaged in the sustainability agenda.

When looking at societal trends, Airbus found that there is increasing divestment in businesses and sectors based upon poor ethical or sustainability standards. A maturity in civil society has driven much of this agenda. Airbus is looking to manage both its footprint -. the externalities that the company has on the environment through, for example, its supply chain – as well as its handprint – positive impacts such as connecting people and supporting communities. The combination of both the handprint and footprint forms the basis of Airbus’ Responsibility and Sustainability Charter, which sets out how all employees should approach their work and business. Airbus have aligned this Charter with the SDGs which allows the company to clearly demonstrate impact that the organisation has on society, while also enabling them to have better discussions with policy makers.

Catherine concluded by saying that business alignment with the SDGs should try to move away from motivational “pictures on the wall”, to concrete action. She encouraged all businesses to sign up and act, emphasising that innovation and sustainability are inherently linked.