The SDGs & WBA in a COVID era: A Foundation for Response & Recovery

More than six months ago now, we all embarked on new year and a new decade, and with that an ambitious effort to kickstart the decade of delivery for action toward realising the SDGs by 2030. And we knew then that we had some serious work to do, given the nature of the challenge – a slowing global economy; stalling poverty rates; climate risks being more pressing than ever; and inequalities remaining broad within and among countries, including gender inequality. With this realisation, there was also a general recognition that bolder, more transformative approaches to tackling these interrelated challenges were needed, and with that, bold partnerships across sectors, including the private sector.

That was the impetus behind the creation of the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA), which is focused on creating a movement to incentivise companies to take the SDG agenda to their very core, transforming systems as they do so. As the WBA nears its second anniversary this September, it is gearing up for bolder partnerships and efforts, and it is exploring ways to support new kinds of accountability mechanisms between companies and their stakeholders for greater reach and impact. A key to this is the SDG2000 – a unique list of companies that have the potential to influence (positively and negatively) the achievement of the SDGs. WBA is committed to measuring and ranking these 2000 companies by 2023, shining a light on the leaders and holding the laggards to account. This ambitious race to the top won’t be achieved in isolation, which is why WBA is an Alliance of more than 150 global organisations across government, civil society, and industry committed to working in partnership to create a movement for transparency and transformation. Pauliina Murphy is Engagement Director and founder of the World Benchmarking Alliance.                                                      Kaysie Brown is Vice President, Policy and Strategic Initiatives at the UN Foundation and is also a founder and a current Ambassador of the World Benchmarking Alliance.

The SDGs in 2020 – Risks, Challenges, Necessities

While the mission of the WBA and its Allies remains, the last six months have changed our societies and way of life in innumerable ways. The continuing COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a health, humanitarian, economic and development crises of proportions that few of us could have imagined. The UN High-Level Political Forum in July was squarely focused on the imperative of the SDGs and Paris as a foundation for our collective response and recovery and the way in which the Goals can continue to be our roadmap for building back better. But much of the discussion also emphasised the risks that are mounting for the SDGs and the promise of a more sustainable and fairer world. The annual SGD Progress Report, released this summer by the UN, didn’t make for easy reading and shows the impact of the pandemic on all aspects of our lives. For example, 2020 will see the first increase in global rates of extreme poverty since 1998, with millions being pushed into poverty. The number of individuals facing acute hunger is at its highest rate ever. 200 million people could end up permanently unemployed coming out of this crisis. Our global economy may shrink by over 5% this year alone. And the pandemic has also exposed deep, remaining and systemic challenges to addressing inequalities and racism around the world.

This puts a strain on already challenged governments, which means it places the SDGs – built on the fact that they are everyone’s joint roadmap – at the heart of the recovery. This isn’t lost on the UN and many other leaders, who have reiterated that the framework for response and recovery exists in the SDGs and the Paris climate agreement.

The pandemic has created a new moment for all actors to step up in response, to work together to ensure recovery opportunities for a more equal, prosperous, and sustainable world are not squandered.

What Role for the Private Sector and WBA

Getting the private sector engaged in the right way, to activate financing and ignite critical partnerships, is more important than ever. We had the opportunity to take part in many of the conversations around HLPF to further drill down on this critical imperative. Zoom couldn’t hide the fact that there is strong conviction that while this is a challenge, it’s not beyond the pale if we work together and more ambitiously, and creatively. The pandemic has created a new moment for all actors to step up in response, to work together and differently (business as unusual) to ensure recovery opportunities for a more equal, prosperous, and sustainable world are not squandered. But what needs to happen for business to be an enabler and catalyst for the decade of action in a COVID world?

For WBA’s part, we go back to our ambition to build back better through enabling greater transparency and accountability of business performance. Our methodologies and benchmarks serve as roadmaps for companies on the steps they can take to meet the needs and expectations of their stakeholders, particularly the poor and marginalised living in developing countries and the ecosystems on which they depend. By holding those that fail to meet those needs to account, we contribute to keeping momentum on using business influence for good. During HLPF, WBA launched the framework for how we will measure 350 of the world’s most influential companies across the food system, for example. Through careful testing and feedback from stakeholders in developing countries, topics in scope for the Food and Agriculture Benchmark methodology framework include the accessibility and affordability of healthy and nutritious food, labour rights, land rights, living incomes for smallholder farmers and their families and a range of environmental issues that have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of those in developing countries. These issues are measured not just in a company’s own operations, but across extended value chains. We see this as an important contribution as we look at an increasingly food insecure planet and as the UN works to a Food Systems Summit in 2021.

Companies that accelerate company disclosure, reporting, and transparency and, ultimately, walk the talk, will be rewarded by their stakeholders, be it consumers, employees or broader civil society, even governments.

UN General Assembly and Beyond: Doubling Down on the SDGs and Systems Transformations

Looking toward UNGA, WBA will be steadfast in its commitment to the SDGs, and to showcasing concrete partnerships and frameworks to indicate where progress is and is not needed and being made. For example, we will publish a baseline report on gender equality and empowerment, to provide a sense check of where we stand with the apparel sector, selected due to the high supply chain impacts in developing countries. As with the food system framework, the Gender Benchmark methodology looks across a company’s full value chain, considering the most salient gender issues in the workplace, supply chain, marketplace and community. The garment industry has taken a particularly significant hit from the COVID-19 crisis, so the baseline report will include an overview of company responses to the pandemic, as we look at issues such as grievance mechanisms, non-discrimination against pregnant and/or married women workers, enabling environment for freedom of association and collective bargaining, formal contracts, living wage, safe and healthy work environment, violence and harassment prevention and remediation.

These will show us some of the actions that are needed if business will be an enabler of the recovery. But asking companies to do this in isolation, without thinking of the entire system transformations required to achieve Agenda 2030, wouldn’t produce the scale and pace of change needed. Greater and deeper government and private sector partnership is also required, which might include regulatory intervention and policy nudges, so that all companies (not just those who are already in the coalition of the willing) know how to bring sustainability principles and goals even more into core business models and practices. To be successful in system transformation, we need to see companies intentionally incorporate integrated approaches to inequalities, climate, and development approaches in their recovery plans and strategies, which will require a breaking of the mould around short-termism towards stakeholder capitalism with a longer view. Governments can help with the right policy incentives and stimuli, and positive accompanying advocacy – take the example of the 72 signatories, including investors representing nearly $1 trillion in assets under management, who sent letters to the heads of US regulatory agencies urging them to act on climate change as a systemic financial risk; and governments and international financial institutions can be instrumental in establishing creative and scalable financing and investment vehicles, such as the European Union’s recently agreed-upon 750 billion Euro COVID-19 recovery fund.

But this transformation will also require a cultural shift in companies, at all levels, with employees and the Board alike feeling empowered and being held accountable for sustainability decision making. Companies that accelerate company disclosure, reporting, and transparency and, ultimately, walk the talk, will be rewarded by their stakeholders, be it consumers, employees or broader civil society, even governments. Those that don’t will find themselves left behind. As we race towards 2030, let’s double down on collective efforts to drive a decade of disclosure and a transparency revolution that transforms business, prioritises recovery, and ensures a better future.

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