Kim Gabrielli, the Executive Director of UN Global Compact Norway, discusses how the business sector can – and should – act to turn sustainability into a business opportunity.
“Corporate sustainability is comprised of two main pillars,” explains Gabrielli.
“On the one hand, companies must integrate sustainability as a fundamental value and take responsibility for their own value chain, their own human rights footprint and for social and environmental sustainability. On the other hand, it involves developing profitable solutions than can have a positive impact on the world – turning sustainability into good business.”
A special initiative of the UN Secretary-General, the UN Global Compact is a worldwide organisation of more than 9 500 companies and 3 000 non-business signatories. Members commit themselves to following The Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact for human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption.
The Norwegian branch, UN Global Compact Norge, was established in September 2019.
"Norwegian companies themselves were the ones that took the initiative to establish a UN Global Compact Local Network in Norway with its own board of directors. There is enormous interest in turning sustainability into good business."
One of their first projects is creating sustainable businesses in the Arctic. The companies identify areas in which they can create commercially successful solutions to a problem and then help each other to implement these solutions. The process is facilitated by UN Global Compact Norge and its partners.
UN Global Compact has a formal partnership with Norway. As a consequence of that partnership, The Explorer was developed.
Is “corporate sustainability” primarily a buzzword for idealistic investors or industry leaders seeking good PR? Gabrielli does not think so.
“Sustainability is the greatest business opportunity of our time. Good business is about selling solutions that people and the planet need. The UN Sustainable Development Goals list the problems the world is facing, and companies have to devise products and services to address these. The goals are like a menu of things companies can proft from,” says Gabrielli.
He believes that we are approaching a turning point for corporate sustainability. This means that products and solutions whose aim is to make the world a better place are becoming very interesting, even to those who put profit first.
“The demand for socially responsible investing and sustainable finance instruments has grown enormously. Global investors will be investing some 30 per cent more in green bonds and sustainability bonds than they did in 2018, according to the Institute of International Finance.”
Moreover, growing consumer awareness and more stringent regulations mean that companies will be forced to incorporate elements of sustainability into their activities.
“Surveys from the US and the UK show that nearly nine out of ten consumers want companies to help them to lead more sustainable lifestyles. This is tremendous,” says Gabrielli.
One question is whether companies whose primary motives are profit and growth can actually earn money helping the world to become a better place. Gabrielli is optimistic, but points out that this will not happen by itself.
“In the most recent UN Global Compact Progress Report, nearly 90 per cent of global company leaders say that their company can and should make a difference. But when it comes to whether they are actually doing that, only 21 per cent reply yes. There is clearly a gap that needs to be filled, and an important step will be to place greater focus on how lucrative sustainable solutions are.”
“It will be imperative to start up and scale up more companies offering solutions and to ensure that existing solutions deliver results,” he adds.
Over the years Gabrielli has come to understand the vast positive impact corporate sustainability can have, most recently as Assistant Secretary-General of UNICEF Norge.
“UNICEF works to give children hope and to save their lives, defend their rights, and help them fulfil to their potential. UNICEF’s analyses show that the lives of over 1 billion children are affected by the business sector and its value chains.”
He has seen examples of how commercially successful solutions can have a positive impact on children’s lives.
“One of UNICEF’s main tasks is to provide education and vaccines for children in cooperation with its partners. In order to know how many children need a place in school, the children have to be registered at birth. In many countries, only a small proportion of the children are registered and therefore do not exist in the eyes of the country’s authorities. A collaboration between Telenor, UNICEF and Plan to register births via mobile phone, however, has helped to increase the registration rate dramatically in one region of Pakistan.”
Gabrielli points out another area where Norway demonstrates how implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals is a sensible business strategy.
“Norway has come far in terms of gender equality. The international business community should learn that gender equality is good business. Figures from the World Economic Forum show that firms with women leaders earn higher profits.”
Gabrielli is looking forward to rolling up his sleeves and making the Norwegian business sector even more sustainable.
“One half of Norway’s 100 largest companies have defined concrete targets for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. This is uplifting news and we can see that developments have been moving in the right direction since 2017. However, the goal has to be that every company has set such targets,” he concludes.