As civil society and governments increasingly focus on concrete efforts to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, business must step up and do its part, says Márcia Balisciano of RELX, who chairs the UN Global Compact Network UK

The SDGs are the world’s to-do list, 17 goals, underpinned by 169 targets, adopted by every UN nation in 2015, to address the most pressing global challenges – from extreme poverty to climate change. These are interrelated problems that require political will; investment – at last week’s World Economic Forum (WEF) the funding gap was estimated at $2.5tn – and action by a range of stakeholders, including business, that will benefit the least developed, as well as the most developed nations, and those in between.

Indeed, business is increasingly being invited to harness its expertise, market reach and financial power to address the SDGs. On the 50th anniversary of the WEF, founder Klaus Schwab argued that “Corporate global citizenship requires a company to harness its core competencies, its entrepreneurship, skills and relevant resources in collaborative efforts with other companies and stakeholders to improve the state of the world.”

A monumental agenda, but where to start? The good news for business is that the UN Global Compact (UNGC), the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative with more than 9,500 corporate members in 160 countries, provides a framework of 10 principles related to human rights, labour, environment and anti-bribery that can be embedded across the enterprise.

Companies ignore environmental, social, governance criteria and the SDGs at their peril

For example, at RELX, where I am global head of corporate responsibility, the 10 UNGC principles underpin our code of ethics and business conduct, the guide to our corporate and individual behaviour, and our supplier code of conduct, which requires our suppliers to meet the same standards.

UNGC also provides an entry point for businesses to engage on the SDGs, bringing together the range of stakeholders envisioned in Schwab’s call for more collaborative capitalism, not least through its SDG Action Platforms on a range of SDGs including health (SDG3), water (SDG 6) supply chain (SDG8), oceans (SDG14), and the rule of law (SDG16).

Last week at Davos, the UNGC hosted the SDG Media Zone to highlight definitive action on the SDGs. I joined one of the panel sessions on gender equality (SDG5), which included Ambassador Amanda Ellis, who runs the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, and Alyse Nelson, president of Vital Voices Global Partnership, both founders of the WE Empower SDG Challenge for women entrepreneurs advancing the SDGs, which RELX supports. I was asked by host Sue Allchurch, the UNGC’s chief of outreach and education, why business is on this agenda and why now? It didn’t take me long to respond: it’s because business doesn’t have a choice.

WEF founder Klaus Schwab speaking at Davos last week. (Credit: Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Companies ignore environmental, social, governance (ESG) criteria and the SDGs at their peril. Increasingly, if they want investors to hold their securities, banks to give them the best rates, or more fundamentally, to loan them funds to grow their businesses (and note that many financial institutions are divesting from “sin sectors” like coal), and to attract and keep the best talent, then they need to prioritise ESG and the SDGs.

The Financial Times last year published a ranking of the five top and the five worst ESG performers in the S&P 1200, and Tortoise Media has just produced a ranking of the FTSE 100 on the SDGs. At RELX we were pleased to come second and sixth on those lists, respectively, but we know there is more we must do to continue being seen as a leader on ESG and the SDGs.

In fact, we are prioritising expansion of the free RELX SDG Resource Centre with content and tools on the SDGs, including the SDG News Tracker, which searches thousands of articles published daily across more than 75,000 news sources, in the six UN languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish and Russian) as well as German. It also includes resources from UN and other partners.

The key to achieving the aims of WEF 2020 is for business to look at how it can scale its contributions, and to seek help and partnerships

The RELX SDG Resource Centre is about empowering more people to get involved in addressing the SDGs. It features RELX SDG graphics using our resources – Scopus, the world’s largest citation database, and SciVal, an analytical tool – to uncover the state of knowledge underpinning the SDGs. The SDG6 graphic shows that only 1% of the share of research on decent water and sanitation came from low-income countries, yet these are the ones most affected by related issues.

We produce citeable statistics on the scale of the problem, but we also need to be part of the solution. To shrink the research gap for low-income countries, we run Research Without Borders in association with the African Journal Partnership Program, with support from the US National Library of Medicine, US National Institute of Health and the Council of Science Editors. We help African researchers build up their own journals by sending skilled colleagues for several weeks to share their expertise in areas such as e-commerce, building editorial boards, creating a pool of excellent authors and reviewers, and developing strategic business plans, most often based on sustainable open access.

Last year, for example, Anne Roca, deputy editor of Lancet Global Health, and Christine Aime Sempe, a publisher with Elsevier Paris, worked with Annales Africaines de Médecine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and held author workshops with African editors at Amref’s African Health Agenda International Conference in Rwanda.

The key to achieving the aims of WEF 2020 on corporate purpose, and corporate purpose aligned with the SDGs, is for business to look at how it can scale its contributions, and to seek help and partnerships through initiatives like the UN’s Global Compact. With the SDG clock ticking toward expiration in 2030, there has never been a more important time to go beyond business as usual.

Márcia Balisciano is chair of the UN Global Compact Network UK and global head of corporate responsibility at RELX.

SDGs  ESG  WEF  Klaus Schwab  UNGC  SDG Action Platforms  gender equality 

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