Why Canadian Businesses Should Care About the UN SDGs

Posted June 1, 2021

PPG’s Jennifer Taves (Program Manager, Communications and Engagement) sat down with Ayman Chowdhury (Head of Secretariat, Global Compact Network Canada) to provide an overview of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and how Canadian businesses can embrace sustainable business practices to help accelerate the 2030 Goals.


Interview: Why Canadian Businesses Should Care About the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Recorded on Thursday, March 4, 2021

Interviewer: Jennifer Taves, Project Manager, Communications and Engagement, Partners in Project Green (PPG), Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA)

Interviewee: Ayman Chowdhury, Head of Secretariat, Global Compact Network Canada

Jennifer: Hello everyone, and welcome!

Thank you for joining us today. My name is Jennifer Taves. I am a program manager with Partners in Project Green. Partners in Project Green is a joint initiative of Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and Toronto Pearson, supported by the Region of York, the Region of Peel, and the City of Toronto. We help businesses achieve their sustainability goals in waste management, low-carbon transportation and energy, water stewardship, and communications and engagement. Our mission is to advance the economic prosperity and environmental action across the GTA.

We are very pleased to have Ayman Chowdhury with us here today, to talk to us about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Ayman is the Head of Secretariat of the Global Compact Network Canada. His works focuses on engaging the business and non-business community to embed the ten sustainability principles of the UN Global Compact and to accelerate progress on the SDGs.

Currently, he is leading the Gender Equality Leadership in the Canadian Private Sector project, supported by the Government of Canada. He is also a co-chair in multiple working groups, including Enabling a Circular Economy for Plastic Waste in Canada.

In 2019, he led the preparation of the SDGs Emerging Practice Guide, in partnership with Global Affairs Canada. He specializes in SDG reporting and guiding companies on how to adopt sustainability principles and the SDGs.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Ayman.

Ayman: Thank you Jennifer for that wonderful introduction. Glad to be here.

Jennifer: Oh I’m so glad.

So first just to start, can you give the Partners in Project Green community a brief overview of the UN SDGs and the role of Global Compact Network in achieving those goals?

Ayman: Absolutely.

I’m going to start with the basics here. In 2015 the world’s leaders set out an ambitious path to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and protect the planet by introducing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which in short, we call SDGs. The SDGs provide a coherent, holistic, integrated framework for addressing the world’s most urgent sustainability challenges and creating a better future for all. They provide a unique opportunity to elevate communication on sustainability and have enormous potential to drive corporate action and reporting. In addition, aligning SDGs as performance indicators with a global framework is increasingly becoming a standard as investors and global accountancy bodies are also asking for more transparency around the SDGs. As they represent material ESG —which are environmental, social, and governance perspectives —investors take prioritizing sustainability, and by extension the SDGs, into account as part of their fiduciary duties.

The SDGs provide organizations with a lens to help them look beyond making incremental progress, by strengthening business purpose, building business resilience, and enabling long-term inclusive growth. Organizations can respond to the urgency of the situation with transformative change.

Before I share our role, it is important to share who we are. We are the Canadian chapter of the United Nations Global Compact, and for those who are not familiar with the UN Global Compact, it is a call to companies everywhere to align their operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, environment, and anti-corruption, and to also take action in support of the UN goals and issues embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN Global Compact is a leadership platform for the development, implementation, and disclosure of responsible corporate practices. Launched in 2000, it is now the largest corporate sustainability initiative in the world, with more than 12,000 companies committed to the ten sustainability principles in over 160 countries and nearly 70 local networks. Canada Network is just one of them.

As the local network in Canada, in terms of achieving the global goals, our role starts with awareness raising and helping businesses understand SDG risks and opportunities. Creating awareness among companies of all sizes and sectors is of particular importance, considering the key role that the private sector can and must play for any and all the goals to be realized by 2030. Following a principles-based approach, it is important that business leaders become aware of the responsibilities and opportunities that the SDGs represent to their companies. Our network reaches companies through a variety of events almost every day. These activities range from CEO roundtables, connecting local networks with businesses at the highest level, to more specialized conferences focusing on just one or a few SDGs. Also, we do webinars aimed at reaching companies throughout the country. In addition, we are actively advocating for SDGs and relevant initiatives through traditional and social media, and other types of campaign activities. The next role that we provide is capacity building, which is to help businesses mainstream a principle-based approach to the SDGs. Companies are already taking some action on the SDGs, but there is a need for practical tools and solutions. Responding to those needs and the demands of the business community, we support systematically transferring knowledge among companies and other stakeholders. At a global level we have launched UN Global Compact Academy, which is a solutions-oriented platform delivering informational sessions led by world-class experts, offering companies numerous opportunities for learning. However, the local networks are the primary channel for the Global Compact to support this continuous learning and improvement in the thousands of companies currently signed up with the initiative.

Our next critical role is recognizing leadership, providing inspiration through good business practices. More than anything, companies look to leaders within their countries and industries for inspiration on where to take their business next. Recognizing and promoting good sustainability practices is a key strategy for mobilizing companies that are not yet fully committed to the SDGs. Each year we run an SDG Pioneer campaign, to identify business leaders who are doing an exceptional job of advancing the global goals through a principles-based approach. These individuals demonstrate how the global goals can enable businesses to unlock economic, social, and environmental gains for the world. Showcasing the pioneering actions and progress of these leaders will help mobilize others in this exciting movement. We also recognize good practices that contribute to the achievement of the SDGs, helping to shine a light on the efforts made by the entrepreneurs and companies alike. This includes developing and promoting case studies and business solutions through publications, newsletters, website panels, and other media. The other two roles that we play is policy dialogue—engaging responsible businesses on national SDG action plans and policies—and another important role is to facilitate calibration and collective actions.

Jennifer: So quite a big breadth of work in driving actions towards these big hairy goals.

That’s wonderful. Thank you for explaining that so well. And that kind of does lead us into the next point of discussion, which is why Canadian businesses, in particular, should care about integrating the SDGs into their operational practices. And really, do they apply to all businesses—the small mom-and-pops and the large multi-nationals—regardless of sector or size? Is this an access point for anyone to get into?

Ayman: The short answer to your question is yes.

The beauty of the SDGs is that these are significantly consulted goals. The process to establish the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development and associated sustainable development goals, was one of the most inclusive in humanity’s history. The SDGs provide two key operational principles, those of universality, and leave no one behind. No matter how large or small, and regardless of the industry, all companies can contribute to the SDGs. While the scale and scope of the goals is unprecedented, the fundamental ways that businesses can contribute remain unchanged. The UN Global Compact asks companies to first do business responsibly, and then pursue opportunities to solve societal challenges through business innovation and collaboration. For companies wanting to advance the SDG agenda, the job starts with acting responsibly, incorporating the ten principles of the UN Global Compact widely into strategies and operations, and understanding that good practices or innovation in one area cannot make up for doing harm in another.

On your other question about, ‘why should Canadian businesses integrate SDGs?’: it is not only applicable for Canadian businesses but applicable for businesses across the globe. And it is now more important than ever, while we are navigating through the COVID-19 crisis. Understanding and adapting the SDGs is the first step towards responding to sustainable recovery. Failing to integrate SDGs strategically represents long-term regulatory and reputational risk, which in turn could result in a costly decision for the businesses. Businesses that align themselves with the SDGs are able to communicate clearly about their sustainability priorities. The baseline for sustainable recovery should be to ensure that business operations do not hinder the SDGs’ agenda. Addressing negative social impacts, particularly in relation to social and environmental aspects, should be a priority for all businesses.

Also, what we have realized, or observed, in the 2020 Sustainable Development Report, published by the Cambridge University Press: Canada currently is ranking 21st out of 193 countries in the world, on its overall progress towards the UN Global Goals. There are some particular SDGs, for example SDG #2 which is ‘Zero Hunger’, SDG #12: ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’, SDG #13: ‘Climate Action’, and SDG #14: ‘Life Below Water’, and last one, SDG #15: ‘Life on Land’, these are still lacking significant progress in Canada. You probably know that Canada has recently issued a national strategy to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, that proposes thirty concrete federal actions to advance progress on the SDGs by 2030. The actions emphasize opportunities for public/private partnerships, where the companies have immense opportunity to contribute.

Jennifer: That would be a great resource that we can direct our viewers to. We’ll make sure that that’s available to them. So thank you for noting that, and thank you for providing that overview. I think that it is important that we all understand that each of us—even as individuals, not just in the businesses that we work with—can drive action towards these goals. So thank you for that.

So finally I just want to talk about how, within the Partners in Project Green community, and within Canada as a whole, and you were even mentioning this when you talked about the number of businesses that are engaged in the process… So a lot of them, a lot of Canadian businesses are already using the SDGs to frame, monitor, and report on their social impact and many more are starting to explore that. Some businesses though seem to have a bit more of a hurdle to getting involved. So what advice do you have for organizations who are unsure of how they can contribute? What would the first steps be to getting started?

Ayman: That’s a very good question and the most common question asked by the companies that we work with. Our response would be: Understanding the goals and how they’re relevant for your business is the first step in the process. Once you have built that understanding, the next step is to identify relevant risks and opportunities that cross your entire value chain in relation to the SDGs. This will help you determine which SDGs should be considered as a high priority for your organization. The next step would be to engage your stakeholders, which must include the leadership team or the board, the shareholders if there are any, and most importantly, your employees. It is extremely important to engage all your employees in advancing the goals through their own work and distribute responsibilities across the entire organization for achieving progress. Finally, once all of those are done, show your commitment by including SDG icons and branding in your products, communication materials, and conduct a thorough impact assessment to provide measurable content in the annual report.

To facilitate this overall process, UN Global Compact, in partnership with B Lab, recently created a fantastic tool for businesses to facilitate their SDG Impact Assessment process. The SDG Action Manager brings together B Lab’s Impact Assessment, the ten principles of UN Global Compact, and the Sustainable Development Goals, to enable meaningful business action through dynamic self-assessment, benchmarking, and improvement. The tool can help you to learn which SDGs matter most to you based on your company’s profile, and how to take action to them. It will also help you to get a clear view of how your operations, supply chain, and business model create positive impact, and identify risk areas for each of those SDGs. It will also help you to stay motivated and visualize your progress on the dashboard. It can also support you to invite your colleagues to join the SDG Action Manager, contribute expertise, and see real-time progress and performance. This particular benefit that the tool provides has been widely appreciated because most of the time we see one person trying to get information from across the organization, which could be very challenging and could be time-consuming as well. But the tool allows you to assign different persons from different departments and business units to contribute to those particular questions that are relevant to their particular business function. And also this tool is going to determine high-impact action based on thought-provoking yet actionable assessment questions, benchmarks, and improvement guides. And finally, this tool is going to help you to join a global movement of companies working to build a better world for people and planet by 2030.

Jennifer: That sounds like a really effective tool for businesses to use, so we’ll make sure that the link to that is available for our viewers as well so they can see that and access it. A free tool to manager your SDGs is a win, and I think that it really speaks to the connection of understanding what the SDG impact is on your particular organization; that these are very big goals that can be tailored to the work that you’re doing.

Ayman: Absolutely, and if there’s anything that we can help with from our organization, to help facilitate that understanding, we’d be very happy to engage with your organization.

Jennifer: Wonderful, we’ll make sure that people know where to find you.

The other thing that I thought was really fantastic was when you were talking about the engagement of employees in driving this action forward, and Partners in Project Green is doing some work to help companies do that; to connect their employees, to drive action on the SDGs in their day to day lives. So stay tuned for that, the PPC or People Power Challenge 2021 will be launched shortly and that will help our viewers do that.

Do you have any final thoughts or comments that you would like to share with the Partners in Project Green community?

Ayman: I would like to thank Partners in Project Green for inviting me to respond to these amazing questions, which are very, I think, timely questions that we need to address. And any other information that we can provide, or we can support Partners in Project Green to also help other businesses or organizations that Partners in Project Green work with, we’d be very happy to collaborate with your organization and see how best we can improve the understanding of the businesses. Because one thing is very clear: if we are not engaging the businesses enough, there is no way we can achieve the SDGs by 2030. Even before 2020, when we declared the year 2020 as the decade of action, even at that point we were significantly struggling with the progress of the SDGs. Now COVID-19 has just made the situation even worse. So it is now more important than ever that we collaborate our different actions together and help the businesses, like how best we can get their input in improving the contribution towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Jennifer: Yes, Partners in Project Green has always believed and supported the truth of collective action: that we can do more together than we can apart. So we appreciate that and we look forward to collaborating in the future.

Thank you again Ayman, for all of your time and your insight into this important work. We truly appreciate it. We’ll link to some of those resources so you have access to them and you can connect with Ayman at the Global Compact Network Canada.

Ayman: Yes, you can always send us an email at network@globalcompact.ca

Also you can follow us on social media on LinkedIn (Global Compact Network Canada) and Twitter (@GlobalCompactCA). We are very active and yes, feel free to reach out to us with any of your sustainability needs.

Jennifer: Wonderful. Thank you again!