Guest blog: Sustainability As The Only Way To Build Back Better

Guest blog reproduced from ISSP by Irena Zubcevic*, M.Sc. Chief, Intergovernmental Policy and Review Branch Office of Intergovernmental Support and Coordination for Sustainable Development United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Member of ISSP. * The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

"Today we have a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions".

António Guterres, UN Secretary-General at the marking of the75th Anniversary of the United Nations, 21 September 2020

It is important to put this blog in today’s context where we are battling the simultaneous challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty, climate change, biodiversity loss, and inequalities. The 75th anniversary of the United Nations that was celebrated last month on September 21st could not have come at a better time as it reaffirmed the United Nations as the only global organization that can give hope to people and deliver the future we want. The urgency for all countries and all stakeholders, including the private and business sectors, to come together and to fulfil the promise of the nations united has rarely been greater. COVID-19 exposes both the weaknesses of our socioeconomic and health systems and the devastating effects of inequality on the most vulnerable people in a time of crisis. As we also celebrate this week the 72nd anniversary of the United Nations Day (October 24th), we have more than ever a reason to mark the ratification in 1945 of the UN Charter. COVID-19 has shown that global problems can be addressed effectively only through multilateralism and global solidarity. 


We, as sustainability professionals, need to ask ourselves how we can contribute to building back better and putting us on the path to sustainable development. We need to use this crisis as an opportunity not to go back to unsustainable ways of producing and consuming. For a company to remain competitive even over the next five years, it needs to define policies and strategies that will put it on a sustainable path right now. COVID-19 has made us all aware that something was horribly wrong with the world pre-COVID. Successful businesses will be those that meet the needs of as many people as possible, utilize as few resources as possible, and engage in meaningful, ongoing dialogue with their stakeholders. 


The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), if achieved, would create a world that is sustainable: socially fair, environmentally secure, economically prosperous, inclusive, and more predictable. They have also shown that to achieve sustainability, we need to tackle all three dimensions of sustainable development together — economic, social, and environmental — to establish synergies among the SDGs and related targets, but also to look at trade-offs.

Sustainability is a long-term trajectory. For a company to pursue sustainability, the SDGs need to be part of its business model and aim toward sustainable solutions through strategic planning and innovation, and not as a public relations add-on. A company needs to use a sustainability lens for every aspect of strategy, from appointing board members and senior executives to prioritizing and driving execution. A long-term systemic view, incorporating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues, is essential to establishing shareholder value, marketing products and services that inspire consumers to make sustainable choices, and to using the Goals to guide regulatory policy, capital allocation, and leadership development — including women’s empowerment — at every level. 

All of this would strengthen the position of sustainable development professionals working in companies. Sustainability professionals can drive synergies and work across sectors and teams so that sustainability really becomes a leading principle in all aspects of business strategy and not a public relations exercise. But they can only be empowered if board members firmly stand behind them. And only if they are given senior executive positions in companies. It is not enough that a few larger companies are doing it. It is important that all companies, including small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) do it as well. Throughout SMEs, sustainability professionals can then work with their peers in other companies to drive sustainability of markets and value chains. And policy makers need to create an enabling environment for such companies to be able to invest in sustainability through preferential loans and tax breaks. It has never been more important than now to encourage and instigate this type of a business model when COVID-19 has given us this opportunity to reset our world. This will be then a real contribution to building back better and greener. 

Both policy makers and companies need to do their part as equal partners in achieving the SDGs. Policy makers need to create an enabling environment through legislation and public-private partnerships so that true cost can be paid for natural and human resources and longer-term investment is encouraged. Companies, on the other hand, need to create sustainable value chains, respect human rights, be transparent in their work — including paying taxes — and drive innovation and technologies that would benefit everyone. Only the whole of these multisector efforts can successfully drive sustainable economic growth, create more just and inclusive societies, and ensure environmental protection and stewardship of natural resources.

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