November 11, 2015 IndustrySociety

Responsible Businesses, Is Real Change Upon Us?

All business decisions start with an idea. At last week’s Responsible Business Forum in Singapore, the big idea being debated was how business can deliver on climate action for a better future.

Businesses have been criticised for their failure to address climate change, preferring to put shareholders and corporate profits above sustainability and environmental concerns. Yet this meeting pulsed with the energy of business leaders truly wanting to contribute to creating a better future for our world; for people and the environment. People challenged each other on whether we were doing enough, what else we should doing and the debate included focus deep into corporate value chains in order to establish the right kind of change.

The Forum took place just as the haze cleared a little in Singapore allowing children to play outside again. The Indonesian fires created by slash and burn farming (driven by global demand for cash crops) and their enormous health and environmental effects recurred throughout our discussions.

The debate circled around who has the strongest lever to create a breakthrough for lasting sustainable change: large corporations, medium or smaller local businesses, or the government? It was acknowledged that NGOs have pushed businesses to change, and that some of the breakthroughs might not have happened, or not have happened at the pace needed, otherwise. However, it was felt that business and NGOs needed to understand each other better to stimulate further progress.

Progress is what water professionals are all about; implementing solutions to deliver results. During the panel discussion I participated in – called ‘planet’ – I focused on how the SDGs will further enable us to create sustainable results for the world, not only for the water sector but as part of overall sustainable development.

Through the lenses of the SDGs the panel addressed planetary health. I spoke to SDG 6, the goal on water, as the example of an ambitious goal. It goes beyond the MDGs, which were about access to drinking water and adequate sanitation. The SDGs integrate vertically, adding wastewater and water resource management, and water traverses many of the other SDGs.

We know that by ‘getting water right’ we can deliver progress in other areas, such as poverty, education, female participation and improved health. Water can address the root causes of many of our most intractable challenges. Water needs be looked at holistically, ensuring positive horizontal integration across the SDGs if investments in water solutions and infrastructure are to have the maximum impact.

The SDGs are high level and their success will depend upon multiple factors, starting with ensuring the indicators by which we judge progress, success and failure are sufficient for the task. The indicators will be agreed in March 2016 and, done badly, could cause havoc. Yet, do we need the indicators as an invitation to move towards implementation? I believe that overall we know what needs to be done and in the water sector we have many solutions already available. We should not let the indicator challenge derail us.

People at the Forum were in agreement that setting targets is important. Businesses need to set quantitative targets and measure progress, governments need to support businesses with systems that are aligned, credible and transparent; and NGOs need to play a collaborative role in order for these goals to be achieved.

People agreed that corporate sustainability – or CSR – can no longer be part of a businesses PR department. It needs to be an intrinsic part of its business strategy. Furthermore, businesses should learn from one another and maybe, as I argued, the days of true competition are over and we are entering an era of co-opetition. Yes, we will continue to have forms of competition, but for a sustainable future we need to agree those areas where we can learn from each other and where we need to cooperate.

I have faith that change can happen, as Friday’s decision by President Obama regarding the ‘no to the Keystone XL Pipeline’ shows. We should continue to act with hope and keep on putting pressure where it will most likely show results. Change is upon us. The SDGs are part of that change, but agreement at the upcoming COP21 climate negotiations in Paris must deliver clear actionable path on the way to a sustainable future for our world.