The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a useful high-level framework for business to use in assessing its negative or positive social impacts. Global partnerships between government, NGOs, and the private sector will be required to achieve them by 2030.

The rise of community expectations around climate change and other ESG risks means that boards and senior executives can no longer function in “press release” mode when it comes to sustainability initiatives.

The management of ESG risk is a crucial part of your risk management framework, and firms need to identify and manage both quantitative and qualitative risks. The excuse that it is difficult to quantify some ESG risks will not cut it with stakeholders over the coming decade.

Institutional and retail investors will increasingly expect rapid and decisive responses to controversies, including the immediate resignation of directors and senior executives. “Riding out” the storm of displeasure will be very difficult given the increasing volume in the media on these issues.

One of the important considerations when thinking about sustainability reporting and the achievement of the UN SDGs by 2030, is that innovation and profitability in the private sector is a crucial success factor.

Many businesses have the opportunity to assess their current operating model, identify where and how they can make a positive social impact, and move towards implementing a responsible operating model that delivers for a full group of stakeholders while still generating an appropriate level of profit.

Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation

Goal 9 of the UN SDGs is about how essential investments in underlying infrastructure are to enabling sustainable development. Technological efficiency, energy-efficiency, and increased productivity enabled by investments in transport, energy, technology, healthcare, education, and irrigation will all help developed and developing countries alike in improving their standard of living.

A lack of necessary infrastructure in developing countries means that their people are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to ease of access to more markets to sell their products and services. Sustained employment growth will become more realistic for some countries once appropriate infrastructure investments are made and brought online.

Environmentally sound infrastructure development will help achieve other sustainability outcomes while providing lower environmental impacts from infrastructure development. Firms who operate in the infrastructure sector will be able to share their best practices with developing countries to enhance ecological efficiency for new projects.

For firms operating in developed countries, assisting in developing countries and providing technology investments where feasible can help accelerate sustainable development. For example, substantial investment in mobile phone networks in Africa has enabled a wave of entrepreneurship and innovation to take place in previously unconnected communities.

Board and Senior Executive Considerations

Boards and senior executives in other sectors may not think they can have any impact on this particular goal. However, UN SDGs are a broad church of targeted outcomes for a global society. One of the more effective ways that any business can make an impact on these goals indirectly related to your business is through due diligence and standards for your broader value chain.

The first exercise is a current operating model assessment that looks at your present purpose, strategy, and operating model. The outputs of this exercise can be mapped at a high-level to each of the 17 UN SDGs to provide input into the next activity.

The second exercise is mapping the current operating model outputs to each of the UN SDGs and identifying the positive or negative social impacts your business currently has. There may be somewhere there are none, there may be others where some substantial impact is possible.

The third exercise is taking the first two exercises into account and re-examining the purpose of the business. Why do you do what you do? Is your goal relevant in the 2020s? Are you a sunrise or a sunset business?

The fourth exercise is then revisiting the business strategy. Does it help or hinder the achievement of sustainability outcomes? Are there any products or services that need changes or closing down in light of changes in community expectations today or anticipated changes in community expectations tomorrow?

Once the current operating model, mapping exercise, purpose re-examination, and strategy re-examination are complete, a broad group of stakeholders should participate in the development of a responsible operating model.

The current trend in transformation is to speak of the target operating model; however, in the 2020s, it will be necessary to design and implement a responsible operating model. Sustainability outcomes must be incorporated into the design and planning stages of any transformation program. If they aren’t, they won’t be delivered.

One of the changes in thinking about ESG risk is that the business case is about the enterprise value of the business itself. Issues that even five years ago may not have merited a mention in a footnote to a presentation could now present themselves as existential crises for a board of directors.

Over the past decade, the cost of implementing appropriate systems and controls to manage compliance risk has been billions of dollars for the financial services sector. The coming decade will see a further increase in required technology and project expenditure to give boards and regulators assurance that a framework is in place and monitored actively at all levels of a business when it comes to ESG risk.

Other industries have faced similar costs, such as the impact of health & safety legislation on the construction sector. But no one would argue that making sure everyone goes home from a worksite at night is less important than making a profit at any cost. However, 30 years ago, those arguments were undoubtedly being made by some construction sector executives and boards.

Times have changed, and old attitudes towards ESG risk will need to be updated. The current economic environment globally, where the asset markets have boomed, and many companies rebounded from the Global Financial Crisis after brief tests in 2008 and 2009 of their operating model, means that the next downturn will provide an opportunity for deep introspection and consideration of what a responsible operating model needs to look like for a secure strategic position relative to your competitors in the coming decade.

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