Marina Walter

Marina Walter

EVEN before Covid-19, the world’s problems were big, urgent and complex. Now, they’re even more so.

The pandemic has shown us that overcoming big challenges demands resources that governments can’t always supply on their own, and innovation at levels and speeds that are the trademark of the private sector. The successful partnerships between companies and countries to accelerate the creation of a Covid-19 vaccine in record time drives home the private sector’s crucial role in working with governments to fix the world’s problems.

It isn’t just for our benefit, but for theirs as well.

Behind every problem—from climate change to Covid-19—lies a potentially lucrative opportunity. In fact, a group of prominent CEOs recently calculated that the private sector stands to earn US$12 trillion in profits over the next decade if it tackles humanity’s biggest challenges.

Sustainable development and business development are joined at the hip.

That’s a big reason why member states of the United Nations designed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be attractive to businesses.

The SDGs provide companies with a roadmap to invest in and drive solutions to the world’s core problems over the next ten years. Companies that have embraced the 17 SDGs are outpacing those that ignore them. Electric car maker, Tesla is a great example. Its stock increased 700 per cent in 2020.

These progressive companies will attract even more customers and investment as people become more socially and environmentally conscious. Taxes and laws are also shifting the bill for sustainability from taxpayers to producers and entangling non-compliant companies in red tape.

So why, then, has such a small fraction of the world’s companies embraced the SDGs?

Objectively speaking, part of the problem with the SDG message might be the messenger.

Because the SDGs originated with the UN, some companies think of them as “pie in the sky”—the domain of governments and civil society, not business. Others are sceptical of the motives for engaging the private sector on the SDGs. Are their businesses being viewed as cash cows for milking, especially now in a pandemic-ravaged world where money from governments and other traditional sources is drying up?

T&T is lucky to have informed, visionary business leaders who don’t need to be convinced that unsustainable societies, with unsustainable businesses, are doomed to fail.

Even before many were aware of the SDGs, they were supporting the country’s development through their philanthropy. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago’s companies are among the world’s most generous, dedicating an average of three per cent of their expenditure to social and environmental causes.

Take, for example, the $32 million investment by Digicel to create opportunities and life experiences for persons with disabilities. Or the Mayaro farmers who are boosting local food production because of $117 million in low interest loans from BPTT. Then there’s the $7 million in funding from Massy for new entrepreneurs and innovators, and the rewards for the country’s most dedicated teachers from Guardian Group.

These companies and others have started aligning their philanthropy with the country’s Vision 2030 development priorities, which are grounded in the SDGs. By doing so, these businesses will be better at measuring the impact of their giving, generating even greater benefits from their philanthropic investments, and responding to critics who charge them with not doing enough in difficult times.

Yet, while philanthropy is a convenient entry point for companies to contribute to national development, it doesn’t draw on the private sector’s real strengths. Businesses aren’t made to give away. They’re made to build value—to transform a small investment into something greater through innovation and excellence.

For businesses to make their optimal contribution to T&T’s development, they need to go one step further and integrate the SDGs profitably into their operations and products. This is the true commercial case for the SDGs.

A few companies have already taken this step. Electric cars are sold by Massy. Plans for the country’s first renewable energy plant are being spearheaded by BPTT. Compressed natural gas, a more climate-friendly alternative to gasoline, is a growing part of the local fuel market thanks to National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago (NGC).

We need this trickle of companies to become a flood - not just for Trinidad and Tobago to have a brighter future, but for the country’s private sector to have one as well.

With nine years left to achieve the 17 SDGs, it’s crucial that a much wider swathe of companies recognises the overlap between business and sustainable development. Supporting sustainable development through what they give would be good. But finding even small ways to integrate the SDGs into their operations, and the services and products they sell, would be much better.

This is an “all hands on deck” moment. We need our captains of industry to join the charge.

• Marina Walter is the UN resident

co-ordinator for T&T, Suriname,

Aruba, Curacao and Sint Marteen

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