The business of sustainable development

Aligning business strategy to the principles of sustainable development is good for business, and the UN’s soon to be finalised Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could provide a framework for how this could be done. This was one of the key messages that came out of workshop on “The business of sustainable development: Building business engagement in sustainable development and the UN SDGs”, convened by the Australia/Pacific network of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, together with the Global Compact Network Australia.

SDSN Leadership Council member and SDSN Australia/Pacific Chair Prof John Thwaites (centre) with Sasha Courville (Head of Corporate Responsibility Strategy, National Australia Bank, left) and James Ensor (Group Senior Manager, Social Policy, BHP Billiton, right). (Photo: Global Compact Network Australia)

The SDGs, which will be adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015, will set global development priorities until 2030 and apply to both developing and developed countries. A UN proposal for 17 SDGs – covering inclusive economic growth, human wellbeing, sustainable environment, and mechanisms like governance for enabling goal implementation – is currently being negotiated by world governments.

As the world’s primary source of economic activity, business has a central role to play in achieving the SDGs. The workshop, on 20 February 2015, brought together over 80 participants from business, government, NGOs and academia at the BHP Billiton headquarters in Melbourne to explore why sustainable development is important for business and identify opportunities for businesses to engage with the SDGs through core business activities, value chain initiatives and community investment both at home and abroad.

In a high-level panel, veteran business leaders including Harold Mitchell, Anthony Pratt and Sam Mostyn, reflected on why they have been champions of business engagement with sustainable development for many years. They explained that this drive came not only from business self-interest (like building a customer base and mitigating future risks to the business), but also from a conviction that as businesses are interdependent with the communities in which they operate, they benefit from creating “shared value” rather than just “share value”.

In another session, BHP Billiton and the National Australia Bank, both companies leading in how they incorporate sustainable development principles throughout their activities, provided examples of the processes and programs they use to implement these ideas in practice. Their presentations demonstrated both the crucial role of business in achieving the SDGs, and the usefulness of the SDGs as a framework to guide business investment and strategy.

Discussions among the participants in breakout groups highlighted the many roles business can have in achieving particular sustainable development outcomes, like ending poverty and inequality, addressing resource and environmental stress, and improving governance and accountability. The groups emphasised the need for business to work in partnership with government and NGOs to achieve to best sustainable development outcomes.

Download the workshop summary

Find out more about the SDGs initiative