United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed speaks during the 2019 UNGA week in New York.
Laura Jarriel/UN Photo
  • Business Insider attended the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit at United Nations headquarters on Tuesday and Wednesday.
  • The SDGs are a set of interconnected goals for 2030 that are aimed at eliminating politically destabilizing inequality and extreme poverty, and significantly reducing man's effect on climate change damaging ecosystems.
  • The predominant theme was that all stakeholders are off track in achieving these goals, but that it is not too late.
  • The week inspired companies to double down on sustainability initiatives, and for heads of state to encourage more public-private partnerships.
  • This article is part of Business Insider's ongoing series on Better Capitalism.
  • Visit BusinessInsider.co.za for more stories. 


While the United Nations General Assembly coverage this week has been dominated by news surrounding President Donald Trump and 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, there was also a major recommitment to the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by heads of state, NGOs, and business leaders. The bottom line: We're not doing enough to meet our 2030 goals, but it's not too late.

Business Insider attended the SDG Summit at UN HQ on Tuesday and Wednesday, and we've collected the highlights for you.

The SDGs affect everyone.

The SDGs came out of the UNGA 2015 week, and are 17 goals that the 193 countries of the General Assembly agreed to aim for achieving by 2030. The health of the planet itself was a primary reason for their urgency, but rampant rising inequality and poverty were as well. The member states have recognized that a world dominated by failing ecosystems, inequality of wealth and opportunity, and of extreme poverty is unsustainable and a threat to prosperity and peace.

United Nations

Business leaders are recognizing they're way off track ahead of a new decade.

"We are far from where we need to be," UN Secretary General António Gutteres said in the summit's opening statement. "We are off track." That became a refrain for the summit's entirety.

And while we mostly heard from heads of state and NGO leaders, those in the private sector acknowledged their place in the plan, too.

The UN Global Compact, a corporate sustainability group, and Accenture, the professional services firm, published a joint report ahead of the SDG Summit titled, "A Decade to Deliver: A Call to Business Action." Its bottom line, drawn from a survey of 1,000 CEOs from around the world: "We have failed in doing our part in achieving the goals by 2030. But we want to, and it's not too late!"

Peter Lacy, Accenture's head of strategy in the UK and Ireland and one of the report's authors, wrote to us that CEOs have blamed "an ever more competitive and challenging business environment, and an intense set of pressures that include global trade and political uncertainties, pressure from activist investors, and the pace and scale of the technology revolutions taking place in digital, biological, and physical innovation." That is, CEOs argued that they want to do more, but it's hard when shareholders and industry upheaval has focused their attention on the short-term.

And business has to take them seriously if the SDGs have any chance of being achieved.

"Without business action, there is no achieving the Sustainable Development Goals," B Lab's Laura Velez Villa told us. Villa is overseeing B Lab's collaboration with the UNGC on the SDG Action Manager, a tool that will help businesses of any size develop programs that will help them achieve the goals. It's set to launch in January.

Mastercard vice chair Ann Cairns was the only private sector representative to speak during the SDG summit. She noted that her company is working toward the SDGs "because we need to innovate to survive. None of us can do well in a failing world." She noted that Mastercard was doing its part by bringing nearly 500 million people in deeply impoverished regions into the banking system.

"It is possible to mass mobilize business," said International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Secretary-General John Denton.

Both Cairns and Denton expressed the idea that businesses pursuing sustainability will be doing so in a way that not only helps achieve what UN members want for their governments, but will be benefiting their companies over the long term.

There's also a critical mass of young people demanding this level of accountability of companies to the environment, communities, and workers, and that means more consumers and employees are demanding this. And that leads to the next point.

Youth are the biggest motivators.

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at UN headquarters.
Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Thunberg kicked off the Climate Summit on Monday, three days after inspiring the world's largest climate change protest, with an impassioned speech demanding action to end man-made climate change. And while she was never mentioned, her impact was felt through the SDG Summit.

Secretary-General Guterres and multiple heads of state explained that a generation of young people have taken the SDGs to heart more intensely than others. B Lab's Villa said that while it can be disheartening to discover that broadly speaking, more companies spoke about sustainability initiatives than actually working toward them, she was inspired by the way million of young people this week have demonstrated there is a true demand for them.

"We will hold ourselves accountable and you can be sure we will hold you accountable," said Trisha Shetty, 26, speaking for the Young Leaders for the SDGs.

All of the SDGs are interrelated, and you can't pick and choose which to pursue.

It can be easy to associate sustainability with green initiatives, but the SDG approach is holistic. Peter Messerli, a professor at the University of Bern and the co-chair of the UN's Global Sustainable Development Report, likened the SDGs to a Rubik's cube. In the same way you would never complete the puzzle if you focused on connecting one colour at a time, you will never achieve the SDGs if you focus on completing one at a time. For example, he said if a country were to solely work at ending hunger at all costs, farmland could be affected in such a way that it damages ecosystems and farmers' ways of life.

A country, NGO, or company can, of course, dedicate programs to a specific goal, like building sustainable cities or increasing women's equality. The point is that if one is serious about the SDGs, actions in the pursuit of one goal have to be made while mindful of the 16 others.

Cooperation is necessary both between and among the public and private sectors.

"Private sector companies hold the key," said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, reflecting another major theme of the summit.

Sweden Prime Minister Stefan Löfven touted the Leadership Group for Industry Transition announced earlier in the week with India. The two countries are leading the group, which includes several other countries and a number of companies, and are using it as a way to build public-private partnerships for the sake of transitioning to cleaner energy on an industrial level, and for sharing best practices among member states.

The UNGC-Accenture survey also found that CEOs believe the only way to achieve the SDGs would be through sharing best practices, even among competitors. There are already models for such partnerships, like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, founded by Walmart and Patagonia and now numbering 250 members.

The week is creating momentum.

Michael Bloomberg took advantage of the UN crowd with his Global Business Forum this week, and a major theme was finding the business opportunity in the SDGs. As the Financial Times reported that Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, and HSBC's head of global banking and markets, Samir Assaf, all expressed excitement at the chances for making money in sustainable businesses.

There were other business leaders inspired by the fervour, like Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber, who announced Monday a major biodiversity campaign for his international food giant.

"I sensed a wide recognition that we are off track," said UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, but also a "real determination" from all stakeholders to get on track.

There's a decade left.

Receive a daily email with all our latest news: click here.

Also from Business Insider South Africa: