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The UN and sustainability

In 2004, when United Nations General Secretary Kofi Anan first proposed the idea of aligning global businesses with human rights and sustainability, his efforts met with a wide range of scepticism.

Some business leaders doubted that the UN could be an effective platform; human rights activists were suspicious that the UN would lend itself to varnishing the image of multinational corporations. Nevertheless, over the last decade, the UN system has spearheaded important institutional measures to bolster ecological sustainability and greater social responsibility by global businesses.

To begin with, a disparate group of business leaders, activists, and consultants came together, with Kofi Anan as leader, to form the UN Global Compact in 2004.  An initial  result was a report in 2004 titled Who Cares Wins: Connecting Financial Markets to a Changing World. [1] The report provided a framework for the finance industry to better integrate environmental, social, and governance issues in analysis, asset management, and securities brokerage.

Signed by 22 of the world’s largest financial institutions, including Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, and Henderson Global Investors, Who Cares Wins became the harbinger of new ideas at the centre table of global finance. It gave a fair wind to the Global Reporting Initiative, which in 2014 listed sustainability reports from 6635 private and public entities from across the world.

This in turn prepared the ground for the United Nations Principles on Responsible Investing (UNPRI), which were formally launched in 2006. The detailed guidelines established by the UNPRI gave a boost to the socially responsible investing sector. It is estimated that over $3.74 trillion are now invested on the basis of ethical and sustainability filters in the U.S. alone. [2]

Many large multinational companies now compile sustainability reports and at least attempt to conform to the concept of a triple bottom line—generating value in terms of money profits, environmental regeneration, and social well-being.

Those looking for a radical transformation, where business and human rights are perfectly aligned, may take a dim view of all these developments. Indeed, there is ample data to validate this view—the quest for profits continues to cause violations of labour rights and human rights, and avoidable environmental degradation in many corners of the world.

However, there is also a growing record of companies that have learnt to combine profit making with greater social responsibility. The Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative have created mechanisms that enable companies to better monitor long supply chains in order to minimise or eliminate labour abuse and other injustices. This has bolstered the work of human rights groups who monitor and track abuses by companies.

The UN system has also made important contributions to how nature and economy must be seen as synchronised. A significant example of this is The Economics of Ecosystems and Bio-diversity study constituted by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and headed by Pavan Sukhdev, who was then a senior executive at Deutsche Bank. [3]

In early 2014 the UNEP launched an intensive inquiry into how to align the global financial system with sustainable development. This enquiry, which will involve leaders of the global financial sector, aims to identify mechanisms that can smoothen the transition to a green economy. The inquiry’s report, due in the second half of 2015, is expected to raise the bar on how finance and sustainability are linked. [4]

Interestingly, there is a growing awareness that all of these efforts are far from sufficient to pull the world back from the brink of environmental disaster. In 2013 the UN Global Compact and Accenture did a study on sustainability challenges, which surveyed 1,000 CEOs across 103 countries and 27 industries. The study revealed that only 33% of CEOs believe that business is doing enough to address global sustainability challenges; 38% of the surveyed CEOs believe they can accurately quantify the value of their sustainability initiatives. But only 37% see the lack of a link to business value as a barrier to accelerating progress—which implies that many more see the need to put sustainability practices alongside, if not above, profits. [5]

Clearly, there is still a long way to go. But the UN system has created platforms and mechanisms of change.  Allen L. White of the Tellus Institute in Boston, one of the founders of the Global Reporting Initiative, believes that at this historical moment, there is room for neither despondency nor anxiety, though there is plenty of reason for both. Instead, White says, “We should seize the transformational moment to repurpose and reconstitute institutions—corporate, financial, multilateral—in ways that align with the sustainability imperatives of the 21st century.” [6]

Rajni Bakshi is the Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

This blog was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] United Nations and Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs, Who cares wins, Connecting Financial Markets to a changing world, 2004, <https://www.unglobalcompact.org/docs/issues_doc/Financial_markets/who_cares_who_wins.pdf>

[2] US SIF, The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, SRI Basics, <http://www.ussif.org/sribasics>

[3] The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, TEEB Advisory Board, <http://www.teebweb.org/about/teeb-advisory/>

[4] UNEP—Inquiry: Design of a sustainable Financial System, Aligning the financial system with sustainable development, June 2014, <http://www.unep.org/greeneconomy/financialinquiry/Portals/50215/Inquiry%20

[5] United Nations Global Compact, The UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study on Sustainability 2013, September 2013, <https://www.unglobalcompact.org/docs/news_events/8.1/UNGC_Accenture_CEO_Study_2013.pdf> p. 12.

[6] White, Allen, ‘Seizing the transformational moment’, in Malcolm McIntosh and Sandra Waddock, eds.,The UN Global Compact—Looking forward ten years after, (South Brisbane: Asia Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise, Griffith University, 2010),  <http://www.griffith.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/287706/The-UN-Global-Compact.pdf> pp 5–6.