Why sustainability must be the guiding light for business

The government must stand firm in embedding climate consciousness into the private sector’s psyche. 

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The UK Business Council for Sustainable Development (UKBCSD) is urging the British government to take two steps towards tackling the climate crisis. Firstly, to define the policy drivers that will enable change. Secondly, to bring the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the mainstream.

The SDGs carry social and economic value, beyond their obvious contributions to protecting the environment. They are key to sustaining society, as well as industry in the future; so think of all 17 SDG outcomes, including clean water, affordable energy, new technologies, health and wellbeing, and transport infrastructure, as inter-linked. Hence, we are calling for an SDG Act 2021 to replace the Social Value Act of 2012.

The private sector has been demanding such legislation for some time. There is currently no legal requirement to action net zero, no common metric, baseline or policy driver – but there is a lot of talk. The majority of local authorities in the UK have declared climate emergencies, yet it is unclear how this is being measured. Are they all responding to the same set of guidance? With some exceptions, the impression is generally of a box-ticking exercise than of tangible changes.

It is our view that public sector procurement must require active outcomes against net zero, greater weighting on sustainability equal to cost, hence rewarding those who are actively delivering net zero. If you don’t abide by the legislation, you won’t get the work. New legislation shaping procurement that rewards only those who follow SDGs will drive positive behaviours, resulting in desperately needed change. In order to convince those who doubt the cost-effectiveness of SDG adoption, we need to demonstrate that the cost of implementation is outweighed by the benefit of investment and new economies and opportunities.

So alongside our parent organisation, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the UKBCSD is seeking to mainstream SDGs to drive a green recovery, which we believe should be integral to every business decision taken from here on in. We must define what a green economy means for business, ask what a green-collar job looks like, seek to identify the biggest influencers – positive and negative – and explore how implementing SDGs will reap dividends, both for biodiversity and the economy. None of us can afford to keep talking about this; now is the time for long-term solutions, which will define the path ahead.

The UKBCSD was a signatory of a recent letter from the Corporate Leaders Group, calling on the UK government to set out an ambitious nationally determined contribution (NDC) ahead of the UN climate change conference, COP26, next November. We see this as an opportunity to give clear direction to galvanise businesses across all sectors to transition to net zero. UKBCSD members are proof businesses can do so, and they will share their expertise with others. We ask the government to set the benchmark, ultimately using legislation that supports the NDC and fixes SDGs in the business psyche.

Jason Longhurst is the chairman and chief executive at the UK Business Council for Sustainable Development

This article originally appeared in a Spotlight report on energy and climate change. Click here for the full edition . 

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