Private firms can push sustainability agenda

14 June 2021
Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 will require a combined effort from governments, businesses and communities

The UN estimates that the achievement of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will require an investment of about $5tn-$7tn annually across all sectors. However, current investments are far from the level needed.

With global financial assets estimated at more than $200tn, financing is available. But most of these resources are not being channeled towards sustainable development at the scale and speed necessary to achieve the SDGs and the objectives of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Corporate commitment and investment are vital to support quicker and more effective progress towards the SDGs.

In light of the ongoing global pandemic, the worsening effects of climate change and an array of other economic and social justice issues, business leaders are increasingly recognising their integral role and unmatched ability when it comes to addressing global issues at scale, uniting stakeholders and driving social progress.

“Historically, the private sector played a more traditional role in sustainable development, focused primarily on reducing poverty and fostering economic development through job creation,” says Anita Varshney, global vice president for sustainability at SAP.

“However, today, with the growing breakdown of confidence in traditional institutions, business has now emerged as the most trusted institution on the planet.”

This profound responsibility requires business to reinvent itself and broaden its role – to create shared value by serving the needs of all of its stakeholders, not just those of its shareholders, says Varshney.

While the mounting urgency to address these issues has emphasised the role that the private sector needs to play, the business community is not moving rapidly enough to deliver the SDGs. 

“We have worked with the UN Global Compact (UNGC) to survey and interview more than 1,000 CEOs, as part of the UNGC–Accenture Strategy CEO Study, to better understand the current and potential business contribution to the SDGs,” says Harry Morrison, managing director for sustainability strategy and services at Accenture.

“What we found was that CEOs acknowledge [that their] contribution is falling short, but believe business can and should step up action by using the power of technology and core markets to build resilience and competitive advantage.”

The study further reveals that only about one in five CEOs feel business is playing a key role in achieving the SDGs today. However, nearly three-quarters say that with increased commitment and action, business can play a critical role in achieving the SDGs.

Improving participation

Acknowledging the need for an outcome-oriented approach, and that any successful sustainability efforts must be intrinsically linked to value, Accenture has been working with the UNGC, 3M and SAP to mobilise industry stakeholders across sectors, and to promote SDG Ambition, a global impact initiative aimed at challenging and supporting companies to integrate SDGs into their core business.

While the mounting urgency to address these issues has emphasised the role that the private sector needs to play, the business community is not moving rapidly enough to deliver the SDGs. 

“The foundational theory of change for the SDG Ambition programme is that by setting ambitious targets that put sustainability and social responsibility on par with other business metrics, companies can really start to deliver on the SDGs,” says Morrison.

Despite the renewed focus on sustainability, consistent data transparency remains a challenge for companies seeking to track and communicate progress towards the SDGs.

A vital piece of the puzzle is ensuring that companies have the right tools and metrics in place to source data throughout their business.

The SDG Ambition programme offers companies access to integration guides and an accelerator programme in more than 30 regions, to support them on their sustainability journeys. It provides guidance on how to track sustainability performance and identifies opportunities to integrate the SDGs into business strategy, operations and stakeholder engagement.

The accelerator has brought together more than 600 companies, representing $1tn-worth of revenue, to further private sector contribution to the 2030 UN agenda.

Building better companies

Consumer demand for progress on social issues is nothing new, says Morrison. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has made consumers more aware about sustainability and the challenges facing the world at a societal level.

“[Consumers] care more about environmental issues, supporting local economies and creating an equitable workplace,” he says, citing recent Accenture consumer research conducted during the pandemic. This research shows that 64 per cent of consumers surveyed said they are focusing more on limiting food waste and will likely continue to do so going forward, and 45 per cent said they are making more sustainable choices when shopping and will likely continue to do so.

“Consumers are seeking out, recognising and rewarding sustainable corporations and brands with increased loyalty,” explains Varshney. “Consumer activism, or their desire to associate with sustainable brands, serves as a driving force for corporations looking to win over sustainability-conscious customers.”

And businesses are responding. Early-movers see an opportunity to lead and differentiate in their respective industries by driving sustainability into core operations, transforming their business models for new value creation and winning in new markets.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made consumers more aware about sustainability and the challenges facing the world at a societal level.

These trends, along with the pace of change seen with clean technologies and renewables, are opening the door for collaborative initiatives and projects that bring together business, government and communities to progress the SDGs.

Private sector makes a difference: examples from around the world

Although there is still a substantial amount work to be done, there is a renewed commitment from the business community. A broad range of companies have stepped up to overcome fundamental challenges in practical and unprecedented ways, and  to drive the Decade for Action initiative forward to achieve the SDGs:

  • The Business Roundtable, an association of nearly 200 CEOs from leading American companies, including Accenture, issued a statement reframing the purpose of business and corporations as stakeholder value, not solely shareholder value. This shift in perspective elevated the topic of sustainability and impact to a new level.
  • In the energy space, big names and small newcomers alike have mobilised a significant amount of capital-infused innovation into renewables over the past few years, partly due to stakeholder pressure. This has led to both a rapid reduction in the levelised cost of electricity, and a rapid increase in the impact of decarbonisation across the industry’s ecosystem.
  • The potential of the circular economy to help achieve the SDGs is central to Accenture’s collaboration with Anglo American, Ecolab, Schneider Electric, World Economic Forum and UpLink on the Circulars Accelerator. This initiative helps bring together the skill and scale necessary to catalyse circular innovation across the globe. In just five years, it has amassed more than 1,500 cases of 'circular excellence' across industries and in more than 65 geographies, ready to be explored and applied.
  • Since it was founded in 2018, the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastics Action Partnership (GPAP) has accelerated collective action from the public and private sectors to strive to eradicate plastic pollution. GPAP brings together global and local stakeholders to try to end plastic pollution, from source to sea, and to support the transition to a circular economy. SAP and Morgan Stanley joined GPAP as affiliate partners in 2020 to foster solutions for a plastic-free ocean.


Global Goals was the ninth in a series of 10 pre-expo thematic talks that was launched in October 2020 with Space. The talks examined the innovative solutions and concrete actions required to turn the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a global blueprint and roadmap to create a more dignified, just world by 2030 – into reality.

During a panel discussion, Expo 2020’s Innovative Enterprise Software Partner SAP and its Digital Services Partner Accenture explained how they are backing the UN Global Compact’s SDG Ambition initiative, which aims to challenge and support commercial entities to integrate the SDGs into their core business while measuring and managing their performance.

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