As Greta Thunberg arrives in New York City with a flotilla of boats representing the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), business leaders are sitting up and taking note.
We live in times of great dissatisfaction with (and cynicism towards) corporations. Taken as a whole, the business world is considered by many to be cavalier towards the worries of ordinary people. These concerns include businesses’ impact on the environment, their unchecked harvesting and use of our data, their anti-competitive instincts, and their treatment of employees and customers alike.
It doesn’t matter that many corporations–the majority, even–are responsible global citizens. Perception is everything, which is why every business needs to work hard to win and keep their customers’ trust. In the past, however, many corporations’ efforts to promote themselves as caring, sympathetic and responsible have floundered–often because their initiatives were led by PR rather than a genuine desire to deliver positive, meaningful change.
Crew members with flares join Greta Thunberg (at bow of sailboat), a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, as she sails into New York harbor aboard the Malizia II, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. The zero-emissions yacht left Plymouth, England on Aug. 14. She is scheduled to address the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)ASSOCIATED PRESS
Little wonder that people are quick to spot the cynicism behind businesses’ motives. But there is a way that organizations can reconnect with their global audiences and remain relevant to them, while still pursuing the ambitions that will impact the bottom line–like digital transformation. The secret is to marry organizational objectives with people’s desires for more compassionate and sustainable business.
From greenwashing to development goals
Milton Friedman’s maxim that the only responsibility of a corporation is to increase profit for its shareholders has been read as the apotheosis of the corporate creed of selfishness–a powerful weapon for anti-capitalists and other modern-day discontents.
But there is a powerful truth in Friedman’s worldview, which is that businesses can only be expected to act out of self-interest. That is why attempts at "greenwashing" have so often been met with failure, since people didn’t see what was in it for businesses themselves.
Sustainability, however, is not a zero-sum game; and many initiatives that benefit humanity and the planet can also bring significant positives for business. For example, cutting carbon output and energy use can drastically lower energy bills, while it’s been shown that consumers are willing to pay more for ethical products.
Businesses, therefore, need to focus on initiatives that deliver real improvements to their operations while also benefiting the wider population, and the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals are a great way to approach this conundrum. These goals include commitments focused on improving education, enhancing equality between the sexes, providing decent work and boosting productivity, and reducing inequality.
In following these goals, businesses can make important improvements not only to the way they are perceived, but also to their ability to meet the challenges of the future.
Business objectives meet sustainability
It’s easy to see how the Sustainable Development Goals will bring benefits to the population, but the advantages to individual businesses may not be immediately clear. Think of it this way: businesses make tremendous efforts to stay relevant to their customer base in terms of the products and services that they provide. Why should they stop there? Why not commit to evolving the organization itself so that it better reflects its clientele?
This isn’t just a question of corporate values reflecting those of wider society, important as that may be. It’s about instilling a much greater degree of awareness and understanding of ordinary people within the business. Whether they’re selling insurance or shoes, a corporation needs to reflect its customer base in order to stay relevant–and to attract top talent.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide an excellent framework for doing just that. Businesses that commit to a more diverse workforce, improving employee training and education, providing more meaningful and valuable work, and optimizing collaboration and productivity will reap the rewards of their efforts many times over.
But to achieve the full benefits, businesses should not simply adopt measures designed to meet the UN’s SDGs; they must put these goals at the heart of their strategy. Nowhere will this bring more benefits than in digital transformation.
All too often, businesses undertake digital transformation without getting to grips with the changes their customers and their employees want to see. By basing transformation efforts on SDGs–for example, by increasing diversity and committing to furthering employees’ education–they can build a workforce that can shape the company’s digital offerings so that they are more attuned to the wider public’s needs.
The SDGs alone won’t provide a roadmap to more effective digital transformation and better business operations. What they do, however, is demonstrate that improving sustainability need not come at a cost to enterprises–and can actually provide significant benefits.
By committing to widening the diversity of the workforce, fostering skills, introducing flexible working, and even improving premises to make them greener and healthier places to work, corporations can attract and retain a talent pool that mirrors their wider customer base. What’s more, they will ensure that they boost staff advocacy, with employees much more likely to empathize with and so adopt the brand’s values.
A company that is more in tune with its customers, with a happier, more engaged workforce, that walks the walk on sustainability–what could be better business?