SDG 15: 8 Years Left to Demand Change: Critical Reflexion on Innovative Flourishing Businesses in the Context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals
Lap Bon José Lui; Juan Silvestre; Blanca Saiz de Vera; Zahra Alaydrus; Carlos Cakra; and Prawira Rahmananda
The Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) are an initiative adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a world development agenda that
covers social, economic, environmental, legal and governance fields through 17 broad goals and 169 measurable achievements. They were designed to ensure that all humanity enjoys prosperity and peace by 2030, and to end poverty, hunger, disease and discrimination against women. Of course, all UN Member States must work towards achieving these goals without leaving any nation behind, but SDGs are designed in a participatory way. This means that it involves all sectors that contribute to development, like the government, Civil Society Organization (CSO), private sector, business sector, tourism sector, academia, etc.
Specifically, the 17 SDGs are: (1) No Poverty, (2) Zero Hunger, (3) Good Health and Well-being, (4) Quality Education, (5) Gender Equality, (6) Clean Water and Sanitation, (7) Affordable and Clean Energy, (8) Decent Work and Economic Growth, (9) Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, (10) Reduced Inequality, (11) Sustainable Cities and Communities, (12) Responsible Consumption and Production, (13) Climate Action, (14) Life Below Water, (15) Life On Land, (16) Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, (17) Partnerships for the Goals.1
These goals are especially relevant when it comes to providing worldwide unitary guidance in order to fight the issues mentioned before, so that people can live in dignity across generations and that we can protect our planet while we develop, sustainably, as a society. However, success on achieving these objectives will mostly depend on the world’s ability to adopt new governance strategies that distribute local and subnational responsibilities, as local governments are closer to the people and businesses in both urban and rural communities, and it is easier for them to influence social behaviors towards sustainable development.
We wanted to take the chance to encourage reading the paper of María Isabel Saz-Gil et al. on Corporate Social Responsibility under the Sustainable Development Goals, as it approaches a new way of addressing corporate social responsibility. In essence, it explores the possibility of participation of retired and pre-retired workers in Corporate Volunteering -a type of employee management that takes into account social responsibility and contributing directly to the community-.2 According to the theoretical model they created -which integrates both CSR and Corporate Volunteering with the focus on SDGs- the Sustainable Development Goals represent an excellent opportunity and a frame of reference for CSR strategy; and could provide substantial improvements for people’s health and well-being.
Connecting these actions of the private sector with the the SDGs is precisely the goal of this essay: we will analyze the different business stories assigned to us whilst remarking connections and differences between them.
Noticeably, every company we worked on had Sustainable Development Goal 15 in common. The aim of this goal is to protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managed forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradations and halt biodiversity loss. Addressing these issues positively affects issues regarding food systems, poverty, and more. According the United Nations Development Program data “around 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihood. This includes some 70 million indigenous people”, and “15% of land is protected but still, there are critical areas for biodiversity that are not”3. Of course, SDG 15 is critical for these people, but it also affects those who are indirectly connected to the health of the forests and land, as it relates to various ecosystems and regions. Moreover, urbanites contribute more than anyone else to desertification and biodiversity loss, not only by expanding, but mainly through their increasing demands for consumption, which requires both converting land for industrial purposes and exploiting ecosystem in order to obtain natural resources. A great example of a local government measure taken to restrict rapid urban sprawl is that of Winnipeg, Canada, where cities in the Province of Manitoba have come up with a partnership in order to preserve the Bois-des-esprits.
Let us focus again on the companies we were assigned. The business we thought made more impact on SDG 15 is “OrgFund: Maximizing Production of Crops with Zero Residues”. Winner of the Flourish Prize 2021, they created a highly efficient biopesticide that has better and even faster results than traditional pesticides, leaving zero residue in its application in crops. Furthermore, this business scaled up its own capabilities and was able to set a 55% margin in this product, while still offering it to customers at 10x cheaper than chemical-based products that are much more harmful for the people and environment. Potentially, this company has reduced by itself the risk of crop disease in many parts of the world, also contributing towards the goal of no hunger (SDG2), innovation and infrastructure (SDG9), responsible consumption (SDG12), and climate action (SDG13).
Interestingly enough, all companies share a common aspect: they thrive from an economical and environmental standpoint. That is, they do not meet the common assumption that profit must involve some level of unsustainability. For instance, “Dragonflies on the Golf Course” applies the science of ecology to restore ecosystems, conserve habitats, and regenerate natural systems that sustain life on Earth. Additionally, businesses like “Sustainable products from the Amazonas”, “Urbania Café”, “Navigating Nature with Natives”, “Revi-B” were based on techniques that cause a direct impact on the environment, the protection of habitats, regeneration and fertility of the soil and crops, and the protection of endangered species. Many of them clearly focused on environmental remediation while developing solutions for eliminating potential environmental hazards and improving traditional methods. Meanwhile, other stories provided a more indirect, yet equally efficient way of positively affecting the environment. For example, the activities of “Hotel Doolin” -a small hotel in Ireland which has a clear focus on reducing their carbon footprint, waste, water and energy use- and “CARTO” -an intelligence platform which seeks innovative ways to better the world and make impactful change- were not mainly environmentally based, but they still emphasized the significance of sustainability and climate action.
Innovation was present in every business story as well. One example that clearly portrays this is “BAUER Resources”, a company that has been able to recover more oil from water by means of reed plants than by using conventional methods. It also contributes to the development of the environment around it, as it has built a treatment plant in the middle of the desert which works as a habitat for thousands of migratory birds.
All in all, these companies were successful in spotting a need around them and properly fulfilling it by applying the stakeholder theory -which argues that a firm should create value for all stakeholders, not just shareholders-. This pattern is clear through all the stories, as businesses were able to grow sustainably and efficiently by helping their community to improve. Most of them promoted personal connections among people from all over the community as well as the improvement of the natural environment around it. Many stories targeted SDG 11 as well: sustainable cities and communities. These had to do with native and indigenous communities that worked for an interaction with the rest of the world, as well as preserving and keeping their traditions and local knowledge: “Native”, “Tierra de Monte”… For example, the former one hosted tours to educate others on the importance of the environment and to be more sustainable in growing and harvesting food, whilst investing 40% of the revenue generated back into the indigenous communities to help build livable neighborhoods.
Nonetheless, we believe that national and subnational government organizations have a greater role in this SDG than the private sector does, as they are the ones who must provide access to green public spaces, resilience to disasters and climate change -especially in the most vulnerable neighborhoods-, and legislate in order to prevent carbon intensive growth models and emissions. They must also guarantee access to financial means for companies such as Tierra de Monte, which provides biological products that increase productivity and quality of agriculture with 0 environmental impact… accomplishing great progress on SDGs 2, 3, 11, 13 and 15 -no hunger, good health, sustainable cities and communities, climate action, and life on land, respectively-. Underfunded companies like this represent missed opportunities through which governments could indirectly participate in sustainable development.
Another aspect that caught our attention was that SDG 12 -responsible consumption and production- was present in many of the stories. After all, most of the businesses end up remodeling their consumption patterns when they balance environmental goals and profit- based objectives; and it comes back to the idea that businesses have an enormous role in and
industrial world that is sustainably developed, as they are generally larger buyers than public authorities. By influencing the development of new, greener products and services, businesses can shape our preferences and create the need for socially responsible product consumption. For instance, “Natpacking, waterproof and biodegradable packages” manufactures 100% ecological packaging that are water soluble, biodegradable and non-toxic. Advertising products like these makes both people and businesses think twice before buying/selling traditional bags made from petroleum, which take about 400 years to fully degrade… and raises awareness on the fact that these unsustainable bags exist and are very commonly used in our daily life, often normalized by how used to seeing them we are. “DGrade” takes a different approach on the same idea, by producing high quality clothing and accessories from recycled plastic water bottles that are again single-use plastics much like traditional bags.
Reading these stories definitely made us realize how relevant is the role of businesses in achieving a sustainable development as a society. There won’t be any profits in a dead planet, and we have seen that firms have started to notice this and work towards reducing their toll on the environment. What’s more, we learnt that some companies actively try to reverse others’ damage to the planet while still making a profit, proving for once that these don’t necessarily have to come with a certain level of unsustainability.
However, for already existing and polluting firms to adopt a sustainable business mindset, it is the people who must demand change. We have noticed how important is the role of initiatives such as AIM2Flourish in promoting participation of private equity in SDGs’ strategies, as businesses more increasingly want public recognition of their contribution towards change. In turn, they receive approval from consumers who value socially responsible firms that not only minimize their harm to the environment, but also make a difference in areas such as ending world hunger or poverty with the products they sell; or reduce inequalities and promote peace and justice, even if its just in the way they organize their corporations. In essence, what we are trying to say is that we have realized how, as consumers, we have felt pleasantly shocked at the actions of these firms and how different they work, and after learning about them have decided to really look for stories like these in our day-to-day purchases: it is our task as a collective to decide which businesses strive and which do not… and working on projects like these in which one sees an alternative way of doing business that benefits all, but then purchasing goods from unsustainable companies, would be a complete nonsense.
After discussing in detail the questions we answered on the sustainability mindset survey, we have noticed a great change in how we see two major areas: ecological worldview and systems perspective. The latter has mostly shifted towards considering long-term impact of decisions and strategies, rather than feelings about short-term behaviors: we have further explored our feelings and understood what it means to have a good sustainability mindset. Being more sensitive to considering long-term consequences of business actions will prove to be a great asset when discerning corporate bluffs that aim to gain popularity and revenue, from real measures that contribute to seeing change in the world. Now that we know more about what SDGs mean and what the goals of 2030 are, we are able to better comprehend environmental and societal problems and pressure companies to act on precise subjects if we ever think they need immediate attention. Before this project, we were limited to a more general demand for change without concrete requests, which often contributes to leaving businesses unaccountable for their impact on the world. Consequently, our ecological worldview has been altered as well. We are now able to connect individual decisions -of both businesses and stakeholders- to planetary challenges. Again, vaguely requesting change has been the tone for us until now, and this meant we kept environmental and social challenges separated form our personal life, as we felt we did not cause them. Collectively striving for alternative business models which cause minimal harm to the planet and contribute to the SDGs framework is society’s task as a whole. Yet, we are often so challenged in our daily activities that we do not dedicate much time to reflect on how we are contributing to the solution. According to the survey, most of us tended to underestimate our own power and influence in shaping a better world and a suitable future for the next generations. Hoping someone powerful would eventually intervene, we felt despair whilst doing nothing. However, this activity has helped us realize our -smaller- role in change, and made us feel more empowered to demand it from firms.
Indeed, we think the goal of assigning this project has been -indirectly- to shape student’s minds towards demanding change as a group, which comes back to the stakeholder theory. Now, businesses have to mind groups of people and institutions which do not directly participate in their stock, because bad publicity could prove fatal to them. In a more-than- ever interconnected world, in which information travels at incredible speed and distances between people seem to be reduced thanks to the possibility of communicating instantly with other parts of the world -this project is a clear proof of it-, stakeholders are more empowered than they ever have been. We have the ability of shaping corporate strategies from the outside, moderating greed and conventional production towards a sustainable alternative. This is why we believe the next step for people like us will be to further work on achieving transparency of business activities, as we are sure some practices escape the public spotlight by either taking place in which speech is limited, or in places where people simply do not care enough to make a story about them. Initiatives such as WikiRate mean a significant step closer to achieving not only corporate transparency when it comes to the impact their activity has on the planet, but also translating data provided from businesses to the people so that it is accessible and easily understood by the general public. Us students from the Universidad de Navarra were really excited to share the existence of this organization with our colleagues from IPMI, who realized people don’t necessarily have to become journalists to start spreading the truth of business practices in our society. Moreover, students from IPMI reminded us that social media platforms are pivotal when it comes to massively sharing information about either flourishing businesses or those which are detrimental to the planet; but keeping an eye out for fake news has proved to be very problematic in the last decade, which could be the subject of another essay.
Despite all of this, we believe there is another side to this story. It is not only consumers who have the task of demanding alternative practices and information about the sustainability of a business’ strategies; firms must now create the need for information in consumers.
We have felt moved by the stories and a little ashamed that we did not care as much for sustainable practices before. Businesses like the ones we have been working on have the power of creating this demand for information about corporate sustainable practices, and about how impactful each firm’s production model is to the planet’s health or towards achieving the goal of zero hunger, poverty, disease and discrimination in 2030, in a world in which humans live in prosperity and dignity. They are the ones who are more benefitted in people acknowledging their commitment to this cause, as well as interested in promoting a competitive environment in which already existing firms put up with the costs of restructuring their business models to adjust to the standards of the people. Us students doing this project are living proof of how easy it is to develop the need for businesses that are exemplary on innovation, accountability and transparency whilst immensely contributing to the role private equity has on the SDGs, whether they are huge or small firms.
In essence, we urge companies to become flourishing businesses that set an example for others to follow, and to further promote the idea that profits must not come at the expense of humanity’s well-being. AIM2Flourish stories have proven that is possible to benefit both stockholders and stakeholders, and that it is our task as a society to simultaneously promote change from outside of the business sphere. We must remember that holding companies responsible for their actions and demanding change has never been this easy!
Our team consisted of 6 people: 3 were from IPMI International Business School and 3 from Universidad de Navarra. We scheduled our meetings on either Tuesdays or Fridays: we matched our schedules to meet at a time that was suitable for everyone so that we could all join -usually at 2pm Spanish time- and then brainstormed our thoughts on each subject before establishing our individual responsibilities in order to to work independently on our assigned tasks.
Probably, the hardest part of this project was to actually write it separately without being physically close to each other: before this, we were used to being able to meet with our colleagues in person for group projects and discuss every little problem as it arose while we worked… but this time, we had to first try to solve these issues before texting each other for help. Nonetheless, having access to a team for support and guidance was extremely helpful: we made sure that we were ready to support and help other members of the team if they ever needed assistance through our WhatsApp group.
Even though that was the platform we mainly used on the day-to-day communications, Zoom was the one we used for more formal meetings. Also, Google Drive was especially useful when sharing documents, links and the draft of this project. Making sure everyone had the chance to share their thoughts during the meetings was one of the main factors we appreciated when working as a team, and we believe it made a huge difference when comparing to how some other teams worked. The key for this was respect and desire to learn more about the ways in which people from other countries think. As a team with people from different countries we had to consider our colleagues’ different styles of working: we brainstormed, made decisions, and addressed conflicting approaches in a way that was respectful for everyone.
We also wanted to take this chance to address a misunderstanding we had for our first meeting: during this call, we discussed the subjects for an hour, answered the questions and shared each other’s thoughts and ideas about them. And because it was our first meeting, we also took the time to introduce ourselves and get to know each other to avoid any form of awkwardness… However, we did not think of recording the meeting from the beginning because we believed our task was to make a clear, short presentation answering to the 3 questions of the week that were given to us in the document with timelines.
After having submitted the video through google classroom, we received a reply letter from one of the lecturers saying that our video was too short, too formal and a bit like a “roll call”. Panicking, we changed our approach to the meetings and strategies and decided to record them from the beginning, and it is evident from the following videos that we got along very well from the very beginning and had work on this on the previous meeting. Moreover, though we mainly discussed the topics related to this project, we also enjoyed getting to know each other a little by talking about our daily activities, the different school systems, our workload etc.
Learning that we have the ability to adapt to changes like this was definitely the other key takeaway from this experience. Misunderstandings and conflict can happen quite often when working remotely. Therefore, talking thoroughly through every point proved to be very useful in order to avoid these problems.
Finally, we wanted to thank the University of Guelph, the IPMI and the Universidad of Navarra for bringing this opportunity to the students of Global Political Economy. Definitely, cross-cultural dynamics are quite demanding but exciting at the same time, and each one of us got to learn more about different ways of working and communicating. The richness a variety of viewpoints coming from people from different parts of the world can add to a project like this is extraordinary: an international team can offer new perspectives that inspire one another to approach different issues in atypical ways, and we will be seeking more chances to work like this in our future jobs.
Bibliography and Resources:
1: THE 17 GOALS | Sustainable Development. (2022). United Nations. https://sdgs.un.org/goals
2: Saz-Gil, M. I. (2020). Exploring Corporate Social Responsibility under the Background of Sustainable Development Goals: A Proposal to Corporate Volunteering. MDPI. https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/12/12/4811
3: M., F., D., D., D., D., D., & D. (2020). Forests, desertification and biodiversity. United Nations Sustainable Development. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/biodiversity/