Last week, the World Economic Forum had its annual meeting in a snow-covered Davos. Under the dense layering of snow, all of the world’s biggest problems – from climate change to poverty – could not have felt further away, yet they were the talk of the town.

Business sustainability issues and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in particular, are now playing a more central role at Davos. This, in part, started two years ago with the launch of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission (BSDC) at the World Economic Forum. The Commission was launched with the purpose of inspiring business leaders across the globe to think of sustainable development as the greatest economic opportunity of a lifetime. With those two years having now passed, and the 2018 annual meeting signalling a formal close of the Commission, we recognize and celebrate its groundbreaking achievements whilst collectively looking forward to what its legacy will be. Time continues to march on, and with the announcement of a number of initiatives that will continue to drive the impact of the commission, including the Food and Land Use Coalition, the Blended Finance Taskforce, and of course the World Benchmarking Alliance, the attendees at Davos were left with a strong sense of momentum. The BSDC was not a commission that just published reports; it has, and will continue to, set a lot of things in motion.

Given that the WBA is in the middle of its global consultation process, Aviva, the UN Foundation and the UN Principles for Responsible Investment, saw Davos as an opportunity to bring together many high-level stakeholders for a conversation which could further shape the way forward for the Alliance. To ensure we gathered everyone whilst they were fresh and at the top of their game, we organised a breakfast meeting at seven in the morning. At such an early time, before the sun came up, and through the heavy snow, it felt great to see everyone coming together to discuss the SDGs and benchmarking with such interest and care.

Steve Waygood (Chief Responsible Investment Officer at Aviva Investors), Peter de Graaf (Chief Operations Officer, UN Principles for Responsible Investment), Jeff Seabright (Chief Sustainability Officer, Unilever) and I set the scene for discussions on moving forward. Whilst our remarks were different in nature, our central emphasis was very similar:

The central role of business

The need for business to get behind the Global Goals – from both the perspective of society and business itself – as a moral and economic imperative.

The direction of money

The clear signals that major financial institutions are beginning to act on their understanding of what the Global Goals mean for business. We increasingly see that the SDGs are becoming part of their engagement with companies and that they are informing decisions on their allocation of capital.

Total accessibility

The necessity of the benchmarks to be fully public – in terms of involving all stakeholders in developing the methodology, as well as ensuring the results are free and available to everyone; including individuals in their role as consumers, citizens, employees or owners of pensions.

All for one and one for all

The importance of the World Benchmarking Alliance remaining a true Alliance; one that brings institutions together to create a bigger impact by building on the good work being done and by supporting people and organisations that are working towards this same vision.

An energising and thoughtful keynote address was given by Richard Curtis CBE, screenwriter and film director, and founder of Project Everyone. With a short film and speech, Richard reminded us that the Global Goals are designed to leave no one behind and require the involvement of everyone, worldwide. I felt particularly encouraged to hear Richard speaking of the need for us to take the Global Goals out of the UN; to make them more accessible and even publicly renowned in order to give a voice to those who currently don’t have one, especially women and young people. This is an important point as the SDGs are so often discussed in places where the people for whom the goals are intended to deliver most are absent. This is especially true in a place like Davos.

Following these preliminary statements, the conversation was opened up for participants to share their thoughts, ideas and concerns regarding the WBA. The discussion was incredibly informative with a mix of very rich reflections, a few of which I have summarised a below:

Multi-level engagement

The corporate landscape is diverse while the major corporate sustainability initiatives tend to focus predominately on the most visible, big, or globally listed companies. Focusing on these companies is justified but is insufficient from an impact perspective. Major regional players have an important role to play in achieving the SDGs and, along with state-owned enterprises, must therefore be considered in the benchmarks.

Aligning existing initiatives

Given the fragmentation in the corporate reporting landscape, it is critical that companies are equally involved in the methodology development process. This will help to ensure alignment with existing best-in-class initiatives. This should also help to ensure that the benchmarks reflect differences that exist between each and every company, including between peers that compete in the marketplace on a daily basis.

Data streamlining

From an efficiency perspective, as well as in terms of managing the burden for companies, the WBA should use existing data where it can. In addition, the WBA could consider – in time – using data from third parties, including satellite data or the ‘mining of big data’.

Dynamic data

The WBA should ensure that data is not only made publicly available but is also easily exchangeable and shared with others (through APIs – applications that allow for the easy transfer of data and information between different systems and platforms). This will help ensure a wider use of the data, lower the burden for companies, and ensure consistency.

Towards SDG 17

Kathy Calvin (President and Chief Executive Officer, UN Foundation) provided the closing remarks and encouraged civil society and governments to step up their game as business and investors increasingly come around and put their force behind the Global Goals. All actors must be ready to deliver through cross-sectoral partnerships and help to create increased corporate accountability; with just 12 years to go before our 2030 deadline, our focus must be on getting the job done. Despite the tremendous amount of work ahead, Kathy concluded optimistically, noting that we are seeing a new movement in which we shift from high-level, centralized approaches to global but fundamentally decentralized initiatives that are truly focused on impact and on getting the job done.

I feel encouraged that the World Benchmarking Alliance could well become an embodiment of this new spirit, by bringing in people from different regions and sectors, all focused on delivering the same agenda.

 

Gerbrand Haverkamp

Executive Director Index Initiative
– Secretariat to the World Benchmarking Alliance global consultation

Kathy Calvin (President and Chief Executive Officer, UN Foundation) provided the closing remarks and encouraged civil society and governments to step up their game as business and investors increasingly come around and put their force behind the Global Goals. All actors must be ready to deliver through cross-sectoral partnerships and help to create increased corporate accountability; with just 12 years to go before our 2030 deadline, our focus must be on getting the job done. Despite the tremendous amount of work ahead, Kathy concluded optimistically, noting that we are seeing a new movement in which we shift from high-level, centralized approaches to global but fundamentally decentralized initiatives that are truly focused on impact and on getting the job done.

I feel encouraged that the World Benchmarking Alliance could well become an embodiment of this new spirit, by bringing in people from different regions and sectors, all focused on delivering the same agenda.

 

Gerbrand Haverkamp

Executive Director Index Initiative
– Secretariat to the World Benchmarking Alliance global consultation