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The role of pioneering businesses in the fight to end extreme poverty

Global Citizen's CEO Hugh Evans speaks at the UN Global Compact meeting.

Global Citizen is about building a lasting movement to tackle the world’s greatest challenges. Our vision is a world without extreme poverty by 2030. Around the time of last years Global Citizen Festival , I was talking with one of our musician partners about how they could best support the Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

They asked me, “In the business world, which companies are doing the most to end extreme poverty?” We get variations of this question almost on a daily basis

Instinctively, I rattled off a couple of well-known brands that sprung to my mind. But later that night, I went home and reflected upon my answer. What led me to name those companies and not any one of thousands of others? If I had been pressed, would I have been able to demonstrate objectively that these businesses are really ahead of the pack when it comes to achieving the Global Goals?

It occurred to me that, despite all the great work being done by corporations, our collective perceptions about the ethical conduct of businesses are often shaped by subjective factors, such as the presence of a charismatic leader at the corporation who drives a development agenda; positive media coverage or public relations scandals and their fallout; whether the company's core business is related to global development (such as agriculture or health care/pharmaceuticals); deep enough pockets to finance development and CSR initiatives, that also shed flattering light on the companies concerned.

This is far from ideal because change that relies on individuals within an organization is imperiled the moment those individuals head for the exit. Change brought about by scandal risks withering away once the heat dies down. Also, companies whose business does not directly relate to global development still have a huge role to play if well directed. Finally, in the absence of robust frameworks, ad-hoc reforms to meet undefined standards are the lowest of the low-hanging-fruit when companies come under pressure to cut costs from shareholders or confront an economic downturn.  

My dream is we could actually create an objective framework that we all have confidence in.

And, from the point of view of the Global Citizen, as a consumer and, through pension funds, an investor, I want to explore how we can build on the great policy work already taking place, to build a framework that will allow the public to make informed, ethical choices in the context of the SDGs.

Because data tells us that 72% of millennials purchase brands based on causes they support and 73% believe companies should be part of the solutions to key issues like poverty, hunger, human rights and education.

At Global Citizen, the animating insight of our movement — that achieving the Global Goals depends on us placing our common humanity over tribal, ethnic or national differences — is far from new.   

But what is new is the strong realization that we will not achieve the Global Goals without blended financing — private sector, public sector and philanthropic financing all working together. And the private sector's role is a lot deeper than mere philanthropy or compliance.  

Equally, the SDGs are not an a la carte menu — all of the issues are interdependent. We can’t claim that we are tackling education without looking at gender equality; nor can we consider water credit without looking at agricultural food security.

Business must be a full partner, making the most of opportunities for innovation, investment, trade, and market expansion that accompany an expanding Global South, while at the same time reorienting their businesses to meet more exacting standards when it comes to social, environmental and development outcomes.

In blunt terms, the SDGs are dead on arrival without the enthusiastic collaboration of the private sector –– from businesses large, medium and small — and we are proud to work alongside some of the world’s greatest corporations as our close partners.

But the most common challenge our sector often faces when collaborating with the private sector is a lack of consistency and rigor when it comes to the development, implementation and oversight of ethical and sustainable business practices.  

This is true in general, and it's certainly the case with the SDGs.  

This is not for a want of effort on the part of this and many other organizations to build frameworks designed to enable collaboration around the Global Goals. But the truth is we’ve only had a year to do it so far  — we just haven’t had enough time yet since the SDGs launched in September 2015.

From an economic analysis point of view, former UN Deputy Secretary General Lord Malloch-Brown and Unilever CEO Paul Polman announced the formation of The Global Commission on Business and Sustainable Development which will, in their own words, “quantify the compelling economic case for businesses to engage in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”

From a toolkit point of view, a handful of parties: Harvard’s Kennedy School, firms like KPMG, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, are all stepping into the breach, offering a variety of ways to help businesses navigate the possibilities and challenges of the SDGs.

From the perspective of creating a framework for businesses to implement the goals internally, the U.N. Global Compact produced the Compass for that exact purpose. Likewise, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, based out of the Earth Institute, is producing invaluable work on how best to apply advances in science and technology to the Global Goals.

All in all, an impressive body of work –– along with an alphabet soup of new acronyms –– is emerging from this newly-minted cottage industry; a proliferation of reports to make sense of the Global Goals for business.  

The one thing that is lacking is a tool for the general public to engage with all of this. Not one of these tools are known or used by the general public to assess the private sector's role in achieving the Global Goals. This is where we have an opportunity.

For we know that consumers are willing to change their behavior in response to the right products. Hence a consumer-friendly framework is not about creating penalties, it is a consumer-led incentive or signal for the market.

But how would we actually create it?

Many businesses are forging their own path when it comes to ethical and sustainable practices in line with the Global Goals.  

The public affairs divisions of organizations like Caterpillar and Unilever for example have recently helped us (and our partners) secure passage of the Global Food Security Act through the U.S. House of Representatives. And we have partnered with campaigns like UNICEF’s WASH4WORK initiative to ensure all employees throughout the supply chains of 41 businesses have access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in line with Global Goal 6.

But to the woman or man on the street, there is still daylight between the initiatives that are emerging, and their sense of whether the companies they work for and buy from are achieving the Global Goals.

Citizens are the missing piece in this puzzle. And at present there is no consumer-friendly objective standard to measure private sector impact.

This lack of clarity and measurability is not just bad news for consumers. Ultimately, perceptions of the prevailing corporate culture are shaped by the conduct of the worst actors, not the pioneers and innovators who make the right choices and do the right thing.  

The good news is corporations are already making significant investments in the Global Goals, and even building in-house advocacy teams.

An objective framework will validate their impact. We need to create a rigorous, cohesive, measurable framework that gives conscious consumers the information they need –– and, increasingly, demand.

Now we’re not the first people in the world to build a consumer-friendly measurement framework, but we can learn the lessons of those gone before us.

Four years ago, Oxfam launched their Behind the Brands initiative. Examining the practices of the top 10 global food & beverage brands across seven criteria, they released a scorecard ranking the companies in key areas such as gender equality, climate policies, and transparency in governance practices.

Now the strength of this framework is that it moved up the value chain, and didn’t rely solely on the consumer facing brands as the touchpoint. The weakness, however, is that they didn’t fully grapple with the question of who should be judge and jury?

My view is we need a measurement that is both independent of business, but also non-politicised so as to have the trust and confidence of business.

Let’s create a framework that can give citizens and consumers a way to navigate the whole Global Goals agenda — and actually get excited about the role of corporations in achieving the goals.

Let’s give citizens the chance to get credible, readily accessible information that answers the very question posed to me last September:  “Which companies are doing the most to end extreme poverty?”

This isn’t going to be easy. There can be no one-size-fits-all solution – business is not a homogenous unit — different industries face vastly divergent challenges; we will need to take a sector-by-sector approach, and align together on how the judge and jury are established, so any plaintiff or defendant can receive a fair trial.  

Once we have done so, I can guarantee that the millions of global citizens who want to put their money to the best possible use, will send a strong signal to the market that the Global Goals for Sustainable Development are a lasting consumer framework, powered, in part, by the greatest companies on earth.

In this world, there are minds who can achieve this dream. We look forward to working with you to do so.