A skeptic’s perspective of the Responsible Business Forum

I recently attended the 6th Responsible Business Forum for Sustainable Development (22-23 Nov 2017), organised by Global Initiatives and UNDP. While not a fan of (big) businesses and the profit-seeking motives they represent, I went because I thought it might be informative, a glimpse into this other world that’s so different from mine, and because I do care for some of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Disclaimer: I went as a staff of NTU on a complimentary ticket provided by Global Initiatives, but thoughts and views presented are mine and (definitely) do not represent those of the institution.

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The 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined in 2015 to be achieved by 2030.

To the organisers’ credit, the conference was well-organised, and they did try to walk the talk by being zero single-use plastics, trying to go zero waste (don’t know if achieved, though they claimed, even before lunch started, that it was zero waste), and zero carbon (unlikely to be achieved given the amount of technology used?). All meals were also vegetarian and supposedly locally-sourced.

However, ‘responsible business’ to me seems an oxymoron, and the two days were filled with lots of mutual back-patting, hypocritical and/or delusional presentations and speeches. It all sounds good: striving for universal well-being goals (don’t particularly like the word ‘development’ and all the implied assumptions and connotations), leaving no one behind. The SDGs were sold as ‘insurance for businesses’ to ‘stay ahead of the curve’ (what curve? You mean to stay as the top 1% owning 50% of the world by avoiding taxes?) because they (SDGs) are good for growth, the planet and people.

I’m not sure, really. One of the main reasons for the huge profits some companies make is the exploitation of the environment, natural resources and people, which result in the need for well, most if not all the Sustainable Development Goals? Are companies themselves not the ones creating poverty, by destroying the environment on which people’s livelihoods depended on, making them reliant on our economic system (and therefore poor) and suppressing wages or relocating to countries which have lower wages or environmental standards? But no point crying over spilt milk, we have reached the stage we are at now, so let’s just move on and try to make things better. Isn’t it great businesses are now on board to make the world better?

Sure, but only if it aligns with their bottom line. This was one of the main things I was hearing over the two days, during the SDG workshops. There were three sessions of 5-6 workshops that covered each SDG, and I chose to attend SDG 1 Reducing poverty, SDG 2 Sustainable cities and communities and SDG 15 Forest and biodiversity restoration. At each workshop, after a quick presentation by panelists and q&a, delegates were told to come up with suggestions addressing questions of Scaling up, Measuring and Interconnectivity, some of which would then be chosen by the workshop facilitator to be presented and voted on by all delegates subsequently. Whilst giving suggestions (if you had the opportunity to, since some people like hearing their voices and dominating discussions), there was a constant reminder that these solutions had to appeal to businesses, work for their agenda and basically make money for them.

Some of the goals do just that. SDG 7 Clean and affordable energy, SDG 8 Decent work and economic growth, or even SDG 13 Climate action for examples. They help companies be more efficient and protect their businesses (and profits). Most though, don’t align that well with their bottom line, and become PR/CSR (Public Relation/Corporate Social Responsibility) exercises.

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Go Google image CSR cartoons.

I think that businesses can be responsible and make impact to achieve the SDGs, if they’re small and not beholden to shareholders. Yet they often lack the monetary financing because most of these objectives are not profit-making. The huge multi national corporations (MNCs) that could make an impact, on the other hand, do often have foundations to do their CSR work (and avoid taxes), funded by probably leaching off the very communities whose environment they’ve destroyed or people they’ve underpaid. They also have rather nice and inspiring videos of examples where they’re doing great work for poverty alleviation or biodiversity restoration, as well as grand commitments to zero deforestation, zero slavery, or 100% sustainable sources.

But how can we know if businesses deliver on their supposed social/environmental responsibility? Can we trust them to have done what they say they’ve done? How can large MNCs ensure supply chain compliance? It’s not difficult to make fancy slide shows and videos, to showcase a particular example of how you’ve done things well while hiding all the other failures to commit to SDGs. Also outcomes and numbers are one thing, actual impact another. Interface was the only company that convinced me they were trying to improve people’s lives and clean up the environment, mainly because they are still trying to measure their impact, rather than just reporting on outcomes and numbers and expecting to be lauded.

HP claims to be “creating a brighter future through actions, solutions and technology that makes life better for everyone, everywhere.”, with programmes to provide access to IT and quality education to children living in rural areas. But how does one take their word and accept them as responsible companies, when they also contribute to Israel’s oppression of Palestians? Can one talk about providing quality education for children worldwide when at the same time they’re fueling conflict and disrupting childhoods in other countries?

Can businesses be responsible? Can we have sustainability and profitability? Moving on the larger questions, is sustainable development even possible for all? Some countries might be able to meet their country targets but often by exporting externalities (as most of the global North have done). Much of what we’ve achieved as so-called progress or development is done by trampling on others who have less than we do, by exporting jobs or pollution we don’t want to countries who cannot afford to say the same. Can cities be sustainable? Should we encourage the growth of more cities? The panelists all talked about big data, technology, efficiency, and partnerships. But not people, communities, or liveability, nor about mental health, well being, nature, or ecological footprint. If questions were raised, they were waved away quickly to more lauding of green and energy efficient buildings and SMART cities.

The last workshop I attended on forest and biodiversity restoration summed up the experience for me. Not really being aligned with the bottom line, the workshop was largely presented and attended by NGOs and academics, with only a few business people around. It was also the only workshop in which everyone around the table could voice their opinion and listened respectfully to ideas presented.

To be honest, I think achieving the SDGs isn’t impossible. If businesses really want to be responsible, they should be willing to take a cut of profits, pay what’s due to the people and the environment, re-invest in environmental protection and restoration (hire some ecologists, marine biologists, and social scientists!) and stop harping about their bottom line. But that I think, would probably be impossible.

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Check out this post on greenwashing here.

 

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