“Every business and social activity we do … has to be good for the planet … as well as good for people and the community”

The mission to change the world by 2030

How businesses are aligning themselves with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals


Text by Tim Hornyak

There’s a colourful, boxy graphic making the rounds on the internet these days; it looks like a calendar or the periodic table of elements, but with simple icons. The boxes are a representation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a United Nations initiative — adopted by 192 countries at the 2012 Rio+20 conference — that is a successor to its Millennium Development Goals. With the world economy now growing at about 3% and in full recovery mode following the 2008 global financial crisis, UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently called on policymakers to use the economic upturn to tackle deep-rooted development issues. Major brands in Europe and Japan are already doing their part through a range of initiatives, such as minimising environmental impact, improving health, as well as creating safer living and working conditions.

The 17 goals have a 2030 target and range from the seemingly achievable, such as “quality education” and “decent work and economic growth”, to the more ambitious, including “zero hunger” and “no poverty”. The UN General Assembly formally adopted the list of SDGs in 2015, along with 169 associated targets as part of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The EU has committed to implementing the goals in its internal and foreign policies, but international efforts to achieve them by 2030 are up against some powerful headwinds. On the poverty front, for instance, the Brookings Institution’s World Poverty Clock estimates that, while only 8% of the world’s population live in extreme poverty — defined as less than $1.90 a day — the global community will not meet SDG1 by 2030, with over 22.5 million people expected to still be living in these grim circumstances. On the environmental front, meanwhile, groups such as the WWF and Global Footprint Network estimate that about two Earths are needed to meet humanity’s insatiable demand for resources.

At last month’s Sustainable Brands 2018 Tokyo conference, dozens of businesses, NPOs and educational institutes, along with Japan’s Ministry of the Environment, gathered to discuss how environmental and social agendas can enhance innovation and deliver new value. Some of the largest consumer brands from Japan and around the world were represented, including the Barilla Group, one of the world’s biggest pasta makers. Antony Strianese, president and managing director of Barilla Japan, was on hand to explain how the 140-year-old company, based in Parma, Italy, has been contributing to the UN’s SDG initiative through its sourcing, manufacturing, distribution and packaging policies. For example, the company says 81% of the durum wheat it uses is purchased where Barilla pasta is produced, thereby limiting transport emissions, and 99% of its packaging is recyclable. It also says that, since 2010, water consumption is down 21%, energy use is 7% lower and CO2 emissions fell 28%.

“Every business and social activity we do has to reflect our vision that it has to be good for the planet through sustainable agriculture, sustainable production methodologies, et cetera, as well as good for people and the community,” said Strianese.

Indeed, food production is one of the biggest challenges in the SDGs and output will have to increase by 60% to feed more than 9 billion people by 2050. Companies such as Bayer have crop science divisions that aim to increase crop yields with several original products, including hybrid rice that can outperform traditional plants even in bad years.

“Our innovations, products and services contribute to overcoming some of the biggest global challenges, including the goals of ‘zero hunger’ and ‘good health and well-being’, in particular,” says Miho Oka, head of communications at Bayer Holding Ltd.

The life sciences giant could have an even greater impact because it’s likely to become the world’s biggest seed and pesticide firm with its $63.5 billion takeover of US-based Monsanto. Announced in 2016, the deal could be cleared by regulators this year.

Other firms are trying to measure their impact on the planet and do more to clean up their act. Dutch electronics conglomerate Philips says it has increased its use of sustainable energy to 55% and has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2020. Additionally, in 2012, the firm set itself a lofty goal: bettering the lives of 3 billion people every year through 2025. Philips measures this by having an external auditor report on how many people have been affected by its products and services. These include foetal monitoring systems, water purifiers, light therapy machines and a wide range of other devices it produces. The company says that in 2017, the lives of 2.2 billion people were improved.

“As part of society, all of us — including companies — have an obligation to contribute to the positive state of the world,” says Danny Risberg, chairman of Philips Japan, Ltd. “That is why Philips has committed to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

Japanese companies are also supporting the SDGs by using their strengths to see goals met. Panasonic Corporation recently kicked off its centenary year by finishing its 100 Thousand Solar Lanterns Project, which ticked the “affordable and clean energy” SDG box. Starting in February 2013, the electronics maker worked with 131 NPOs and other organisations to deliver 102,716 solar lanterns to people without electricity in 31 countries. With weaker lights, it’s harder to work; and people also face the hazards of fire and smoke inhalation from kerosene lamps and candles, which are expensive for people in developing nations. The lanterns were deployed in African infirmaries during the Ebola crisis, and they have illuminated the births of 2,434 babies to date, according to the company. They have also lit up schools in Indonesia, where the last donation of 5,004 lanterns was made in January 2018.

“As a global corporate citizen, we remain committed to helping people living without electricity solve problems,” Rika Fukuda of Panasonic’s CSR & Citizenship Group said in a release, “with the aim to build an inclusive society where everyone enjoys life by sharing the joy with each other.” 

“Our innovations, products and services contribute to overcoming some of the biggest global challenges”