In the third week of September the UN in New York – and virtually – was the stage for a vast number of affirmations and commitments with respect to Sustainability and Climate Change. We had the opening of the General Assembly, the Food Systems Summit, the UN Uniting Business, and various side events. Watching the stream of three-minute statements from some 100 governmental leaders at the Food Summit, it was hard to know whether to feel heartened at the attention to the critical challenge of food production, or cynical about platitudes by some leaders whose commitments seemed less than credible.
The Global Compact panels and discussions produced the same effect: encouraging top corporate leaders to voice dedication to the SDGs in their business, but at times inviting scepticism as to their motivation and the integration with their business goals. An executive search company, Russell Reynolds, published research suggesting that many more business leaders espouse the sustainability mantra for branding and PR reasons than for value creation.
Greenwashing is a constant presence: those same indices which purport to rank companies’ commitments to sustainability will offer advice – for a substantial fee – as to how to improve relative standing in their rankings. My own experience in running CSR at various multinationals was decidedly mixed.
That is not to say that many businesses and their staff are not sincere about sustainability and embedding the SDGs in their core business: Unilever under Paul Polman was a prime example, and in this issue of UN Today we hear from P&G. Companies’ commitments have to be assessed and verified – independently.
At our firm Ancored we’ve developed an analysis based entirely on the views of third-party activists and civil society, the one source whose credibility is their entire raison d’être.
In UN Today we also hear of the UN System’s own sustainability management: of Greening the Blue; and of International Geneva’s initiative in measured sustainability.
These are laudable and self-evident: the global leaders in calling for the protection of our vulnerable and wondrous planet for future generations must lead by example. The good news is that in so many areas – from food production to energy use – it is we citizen consumers who have the final say. If we spend the extra Euro on free range, organic eggs in the supermarket, if we move away from fossil fuels in our own lives – we in fact exercise the control. Business has to follow consumer choices. For those with less purchasing power, for whom the extra Euro does make a difference, governments have to step in with support and regulation. Which brings us back to those affirmations at the UN this week, and to the systemic transformation that is so acutely needed. Let us hope that governments at Glasgow’s COP26 meet our global aspirations.