Global goals, fewer squabbles

Progress towards sustainable development goals offers hope for a constructive role for companies

The tortuous process of moving from the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to a new set of Sustainable Development Goals reached an important milestone in June.

In 2012 the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, dubbed Rio+20, agreed a detailed process to devise the post 2015 development agenda. This included an open working group of 30 countries, which has been deliberating without (so far) getting locked into squabbling geographical blocks –the G77 versus the EU and the like. They have just published a ‘zero draft’ of their thinking.

No doubt this will change before it is finalised in July and sent up for further deliberation and decision by the UN in time for next year. But already it is interesting to see many of the issues that corporate sustainability mangers grapple with are being referenced – such as inclusive growth, small-scale enterprises, food waste at retail and consumer levels, international tax avoidance, and even capital accounting methods that incorporate social, human and environmental aspects.

Of course the basic approach is still structured around big world goals, like ending poverty and hunger and promoting gender equality. Nonetheless, it’s possible to see how the role of big corporations could be hard-wired in, unlike the MDGs. One of the 17 proposed new goals is even headed “promoting sustainable consumption and production patterns”.

This need for greater global agreement including business was underscored for me by the continuing spat over palm oil. As we finalised this month’s CCBriefing round-up, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm oil was meeting in London for its European roundtable.

Everyone agreed on the long term goal of full sustainability and that some progress is being made. But I was still saddened to see the Indonesian government trading insults with Greenpeace about neo-colonialism, with walk-on parts by the Malaysian smallholders, global trader Cargill and a lone consumer voice in proxy from Marks & Spencer. More heat than light was generated.

Currently only about 16% of global palm oil production is certified as sustainable, and consumer and political pressure is mounting for traceability down the supply chain – as this month’s comment from Mark Robertson of Sedex highlights. With tropical deforestation responsible for about 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the IPCC, this stuff matters.

Sadly the facts on the ground are changing, while the UN diplomats continue to debate.

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