Bridging the gaps

October 5, 2017

Small Enterprise
Collaboration is the key to the success, and scale, of sustainability. It takes leadership, humility and a willingness to embrace other viewpoints in order for governments, business, and civil society to work together. Photos: © Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

In the last two years something incredibly positive has happened. The often-criticised United Nations has given the world the biggest gift: the Sustainable Development Goals. The Global Goals have moved the conversation about sustainability from “why?” to “how?”. The facts are incontrovertible – we must act, now – and the Goals lay out the agenda. Working out how to find solutions for the sustainability challenges of energy, cities, food systems, waste, water and mobility is now on everyone’s agenda.  

The mission of moving to a shared vision of a world where more than a billion people are all living well and within the boundaries of the planet by 2050 is now widely accepted. Business, government and civil society share a strong will and understand the urgency.

The bigger question then, is: Why we are not moving faster toward transformation?

The answer comes down to complexity and the need to collaborate. Systems transformation involves multiple stakeholders operating from different vantage points across different cultures and different geographies. To unlock the necessary transformation, we need to collaborate – to bring different stakeholders together to work on these common challenges.

Working across systems is not trivial. It takes leadership, humility and a willingness to embrace other viewpoints in order for governments, business, and civil society to work together.

This intersection of ambition and partnership was strongly evident at the 2015 climate summit. The resulting Paris Agreement succeeded because the science was clear and countries, cities, civil society, and business came together with a shared vision, shared ambition and commitment to an action plan.

At the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, we work with the most forward-thinking companies and their Chief Executive Officers to develop solutions to global sustainability challenges.

I am encouraged to find that I no longer need to explain the rationale for taking action when I speak with companies around the world. However, I do have to present the right incentives to demonstrate that collaboration with other businesses – sometimes competitors – will bring coherent and transformative changes. And it must all make economic sense.

The Business and Sustainable Development Commission was launched in Davos in 2016 to map the economic prize that could be available to business if the Global Goals are achieved. Its flagship report this year, Better Business, Better World, drew upon the expertise of the global private sector and civil society leaders to investigate, articulate and amplify the business case for sustainable development and points to market opportunities of at least $12 trillion a year that could be unlocked by 2030.

So there is a clear business case. However, while we can collectively work on business solutions, their worthiness and implementation depends on two additional key pillars: science and policy.

Business needs clear and indisputable science-based targets. These are in place for climate, under the 2°C goal. But in other fields, such as food, there is no common scientific voice that speaks to issues as broad as malnutrition, obesity, waste, land degradation, and aspiration. Great progress, however, is being made by the EAT Lancet Commission in assessing whether transformation of the global food system in order to deliver healthy and sustainable diets to feed a growing world population is possible. The results will be presented in The Lancet in next year.

As for policy, governments set the frameworks in which business operates. Bringing countries together to unlock transformation is a daunting challenge. Yet governments around the world tirelessly unite in platforms such as the

Global Environment Facility to understand, prioritize, and fund transformation.

Policymakers increasingly acknowledge the need to engage with business to speed up the process. Close to 100 per cent of the food we eat, for example, is produced, processed, or distributed by the private sector. Business therefore needs to be both at the heart of developing sustainability solutions for food, and at the table to help create national and international policy action plans.

We must now bridge the gap between our communities. We share the same vision and we want the same outcome.

Just as the Facility is bringing together the governments of the world around the issues of the global commons and the environment, the Council is convening the leading companies in the world around the same agenda. As a chief executive officer-led organization of over 200 businesses working together to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world, the Council and our forward-thinking members are committed, and ready to lead the change.

None of this would be possible without the valuable insight, endorsement, and contribution of our partners from civil society, academia, governments, and philanthropy, who act catalytically in reaching transformative action.

This spring, the Facility invited the Council and some of our member companies to be at the table for the first of four meetings with donor governments as part of their replenishment process. This gave each party the opportunity to understand better how we can succeed collectively, while independently focusing on our stakeholders and agendas.

This bold initiative opened a door to a bridge over the gap. Now, as leaders, we need to be courageous and start crossing it, so we may meet in the middle and build solutions together.

by Peter Bakker, President, World Business Council for Sustainable Development

This article originally appeared in "The Global Environment Facility: Delivering solutions for a sustainable future," the September 2017 issue of UN Environment's "Our Planet" magazine. The magazine was launched at the GEF-7 2nd replenishment meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.