Why the UN Sustainable Development Goals are a business opportunity

Australian Ethical Super/ Facebook.

“This is the tipping point, the first time in the history of capitalism where it is okay for businesses to engage with poverty. It is not bad to help and make money.”

These are the words of University of Sydney Professor Ranjit Voola in an interview with Business Insider, and there are numerous examples of it already taking place.

Over the weekend, Paul Polamn, the CEO of Unilever, won an award at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit. Part of the reason he won the award is a program run by Unilever in India to encourage handwashing.

Simultaneously addressing a social program – millions die each year of diarrhoea – while marketing their own product, a soap called Lifebuoy, is clearly a win-win situation. Here’s how Unilever sees it:

“This is not philanthropy. It is marketing with social benefits.”

Other examples include programs run by Google and Facebook to connect more of the world to the internet. Over the weekend, Mark Zuckerberg and Bono released a joint op-ed to highlight the need to expand internet connectivity. And Google announced their tie up with India Railways, potentially bringing wifi to millions of commuters at 400 stations.

The programs run by Facebook and Google undoubtedly have immense social good, but also represent huge business opportunities. Even more, Professor Voola points out the huge opportunity in the first sustainability goal: the elimination of poverty. There are billions of people currently living under $5 a day. The alleviation of poverty for billions of people would completely overturn businessmodels. It would “change the mindset from low volumes and big margins to high volumes and low margins,” according to Prof Voola.

Not to mention the incredible opportunity that exists during this transition period. Prof Voola notes the $US300 million commitment by GE Health to develop healthcare in emerging markets. A move GE Healthcare president and CEO John Flannery justified like this:

“Much of the world’s population is without adequate healthcare, and innovations that can create better patient outcomes in a sustainable way are urgently needed,” he said. “Many emerging economies are looking for experienced partners to help build skills, capacity and effective healthcare solutions for their patients.”

The key point Prof Voola makes is that this is a fundamental shift in business thinking: “It’s not coporate social responsibility, it is your business strategy.”

And if business doesn’t buy into this shift, the Sustainable Development Goals may not be possible at all. The reason is the cost, as some estimates for the 15-year plan are now in the trillions of dollars. The OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria admitted as much in an interview with Thomson Reuters.

“Without the private sector, it is not going to happen, as we have budgetary constraints in every country,” Gurria said.

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