How to build a business around the SDGs, and do more with less

How can we do more with less as Asia’s population races towards 5 billion by 2030? And how will we build businesses around the biggest challenges facing the region such as deforestation, hunger and inequality?

These were the crunch questions raised on Monday at Ecosperity, an annual conference held by Singapore investment firm Temasek, which this year focused on getting the private sector to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ambitious targets set by the United Nations in 2015 to steer the world’s development for the next 15 years.

How to stay in business

Paul Polman, chief executive of the world’s largest consumer goods company Unilever, gave the keynote and pointed out that rapid wealth creation over the last 50 years had placed massive strain on natural resources. Air pollution, for example, prematurely kills 8 million people a year, and by many measures, mankind has already exceeded acceptable limits on consumption, he said.

One of the biggest barriers to achieving the SDGs is the gap between rich and poor, Polman noted.

Human systems increasingly work for fewer and fewer people and “are out of equilibrium,” he said, noting that 80 per cent of people are living in countries that are becoming more unequal.

“Any system that leaves people behind, will be rebelled against – and that’s what we’re seeing globally,” said Polman, referring to the tumultuous geopolitical backdrop in recent years that has given rise to a Donald Trump United States presidency and Brexit.

But the CEO of the US$50 billion company was sanguine about the role of business to achieve the SDGs.

“If you want a long-term sustainable business, it makes sense to have a sustainable business model,” said Polman, who pointed to data showing that the average lifespan of a business had fallen from 67 years to 17 years in a few decades.

“Businesses go out of business because they lose their purpose,” he said.

Polman also took a swipe at companies that are not committed in their sustainability efforts, and the practice of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – a company’s efforts to give back to society.

“Frankly, CSR is not what we’re talking about [in the realm of sustainability]; CSR is a side-project. It’s run by people close to retirement,” he said.

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