UN Global Compact chief Lise Kingo says companies, governments and civil society have to come together to deliver the SDGs and make globalisation work for everyone

Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, Martin Luther King said: “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” He stressed that “this is no time for apathy or complacency”.

That was in 1963. Today, we are finding ourselves in another time of great moral conflict. Conflict and violence have forcibly displaced 60 million people. Many more are fleeing poverty, hunger and climate change. We have not experienced migration at this scale since the Second World War.

Even if we are living in an era of unprecedented peace on earth, extremism has brought a different kind of war to our doorsteps: difficult to understand and difficult to predict. It strikes during a teen concert in Manchester, an evening out in London or Paris, at a Christmas market in Berlin, during Bastille Day in Nice, or during a lunch break in Stockholm. It can meet us everywhere.

For many people, globalisation is seen as part of the problem. Globalisation means lack of security, loss of jobs, loss of independence, loss of sovereignty. People turn to leaders who promise more security by closing the borders, or job safety through protectionist measures. These are dangerous times of division. People have lost faith in international institutions such as United Nations and the European Union; institutions that were founded as projects of solidarity and unity in a post-war world to foster peace and prosperity for all.  

The biggest challenges of our time, however, cannot be turned away at the border. They require that we stand more united than ever for the world we want. We are the one generation that can still turn the clock for the irreversible damage to our planet and its people from the environmental crisis that drives climate change and loss of biodiversity. And we are the generation that can put an end to poverty and create the world we want. But only if we decide to play on the same team.

Birth of Global Compact

When former Secretary General Kofi Annan at the World Economic Forum in 1999 called on business leaders to initiate a “Global Compact” of shared values and principles, he sought to give a human face to the global market. He warned that unless globalisation has strong social pillars it will be fragile and vulnerable: “Vulnerable to backlash from all the ‘isms’ of our post-cold war world: protectionism; populism; nationalism; ethnic chauvinism; fanaticism; and terrorism.” It was his view that “if we cannot make globalisation work for all, in the end it will work for none.”

Today the very fabric of our society relies on our ability to make globalisation work for all. Delivering on the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development will be essential to rebuild trust and strengthen the social contract between governments and citizens, business and their stakeholders. If one thing is certain, it is that today’s business landscape is defined by an unprecedented, accelerating and complex mix of risks and opportunities. No business in any industry sector in any country will be exempt from radical changes to its operating environment.

Megatrends like population growth, resource scarcity and global health risks will affect all of us. By 2030 almost half of the world’s population could face water scarcity, with demand outstripping supply by 40%. One of the biggest threats to human health today is air pollution. In New Delhi half of all children suffer from respiratory problems due to air pollution. And this problem is not just in developing countries. Just five days into 2017 London had exceeded its air pollution limit for the entire year. Recently, I attended a big Oceans Conference at the UN. What many people probably don’t realise is that the Oceans are essential for life on earth. But consider this: If we do not take urgent action, we could face a future where there is more plastic in the oceans than fish.

Lise Kingo, executive director of UN Global Compact. Credit: UN Global Compact/Andres Wong

Need for new business models

These scenarios hardly offer good framework conditions for business, let alone for people, to prosper and thrive. My point is, whether we like it or not, sustainable development has become our business. 

The Global Goals, however, also offer future market opportunities – estimated worth $12 trillion. Turning these major risks into opportunities, however, will require that we change with them. New business models that are more circular, inclusive and responsive to the needs of people and communities will increasingly be seen as the formula for sustainable growth. New technologies will offer opportunities for breakthrough innovation that will accelerate impact and scale for sustainable development and create new markets that will replace the old and less sustainable ones.

Realising these opportunities, however, requires that we work together business-to-business; public-with-private; and within and across sectors. UN Global Compact offers a united platform for businesses, governments and civil society organisations to come together in a global movement to create the world we want.

'License to innovate'

Today we are more than 13,000 signatories, which collectively represent more than 60 million employees in more than 160 countries. And we are growing day by day. More and more businesses realise that sustainable development is not just a moral imperative. It is their license to operate and innovate. UN Global Compact is uniquely positioned to be the global and national convener and make the Global Goals local business.

Our starting point is to ensure that all businesses integrate the 10 UN Global Compact Principles in their strategies and operations. Living up to and communicating on progress on the principles provide the foundation for realising the business potential of the Global Goals.

Delivering on the 17 Global Goals will not be easy. It will be the biggest change-management project in human history, requiring that we make sustainability our business. Sustainability has to make the transition from being CSR projects that operate in the fringes of your business, to become part of your core business proposition. First and foremost, it has to deliver long-term value to business, people and communities.

Only by having true local impact can we have global impact. That is also why I am delighted to be part of this important meeting today. We need to mobilize a powerful bottom-up movement of small, medium and large global enterprises and stakeholders to drive change for a better tomorrow.

Action is the key word. UN Global Compact has designed ten Action Platforms, rooted in the ten principles, to mobilise business participants together with UN agencies, governments and civil society organizations to drive action and collective impact for the Global Goals.

The 17 Global Goals are the inspiration of our time. Let’s get to work and make the world a better place. The rewards will be stretching to generations. Throughout my professional life, I have lived by the mantra: the world is ruled by those who turn up. Thanks for being here today, and please stay involved and engaged for the world we want.  As Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change.”

Lise Kingo is executive director of the United Nations Global Compact. This is an edited version of her speech at Relx Group’s Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 event last month in London.

Main image credit: Lonndubh

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