How can private sector companies help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations?
The young woman is crying. She is scared. “Is it supposed to be like this?” she wonders. “Am I going to die?” She stays home from school the next day, and the day after that. She misses a week of school. Every month, the same thing happens, and soon she is falling behind in her schoolwork. If only there were someone to talk to? If only there was something she could do.
Menstruation remains stigmatised in many regions of the world, which leads to discomfort and unnecessary health issues. The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and SCA have been working in partnership to break the silence surrounding menstruation under the framework established by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
Personal hygiene and gender equality remain vital issues, and the United Nations will launch its new Sustainable Development Goals this autumn following the conclusion of the Millennium Goals. The 17 new goals aimed at achieving global sustainable development are extremely ambitious, with concrete targets in areas such as health, equality, sustainable energy and combating poverty and famine. They also revisit the question of how private sector companies can help achieve goals set by the UN.
Cynics sometimes question the ability of private enterprises to promote sustainable development. Some argue that growth and profit generation conflict with efforts to create a more sustainable world. But if we are truly serious about achieving the new goals by 2030, governments cannot be solely responsible for making things happen. Companies and NGOs will need to contribute as well, and – for efforts to be effective – each actor will need to identify their particular role and focus on what they do best, both on their own and in new partnerships and collaborations.
Further, private companies actually increase profits by focusing on creating value for society, people and nature as well as on shareholder value. Consumers, employees and investors are increasingly calling on companies to be good corporate citizens, and companies also have a unique capacity to solve practical matters related to the task at hand.
Millennials (those born between 1984 and 1996) actually have more confidence in companies than in governments in terms of solving societal issues. Hence, the old adage that a company’s public image is correlated solely with its bottom line is now being challenged. As representatives of the private sector, we are accustomed to regarding problems as opportunities and working towards quantifiable goals. It is second nature for us to constantly monitor our activities, measure our return on investments and refine our processes. Some factors, however, improve a company’s chances of success.
Sustainability work needs to be closely related to or incorporated into the business model. If a company’s sustainability activities are comprised solely of monetary donations – however nobly motivated – its investments may be at risk if costs need to be cut at some point. Incorporating these activities into the company’s business model, identity and corporate culture ensures a successful long-term commitment to sustainable development.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be utilised in determining the most appropriate areas for a company’s focus. An energy company, for instance, may chose to focus on goals related to affordable, reliable and sustainable modern energy, while a construction company may focus on infrastructure.
For SCA, a leading global hygiene and forest products company, the natural focus is on issues such as global health, sustainable water management, sanitation and women’s empowerment, as these areas are closely associated with the hygiene products we produce and the consumers we have.
A good illustration of this is the SCA and WSSCC partnership to break the silence surrounding menstruation. One example of our work was the menstrual hygiene workshop we attended together with WSSCC and women in South Africa, where experts from WSSCC, the Volunteer Center (a local NGO) and SCA led a training session on the challenges that women face in managing their periods.
This exemplifies how companies can help advance global issues while also promoting their products and generating sales – by making investments or creating innovations aimed at building a better world, or by sharing knowledge with those in need.
At SCA, we welcome the new Sustainable Development Goals and urge companies throughout the world to do the same. By working together with governments, NGOs and other companies, we can truly create a better world for tomorrow and ensure that no woman will be distressed or need to miss school because they are menstruating.
Kersti Strandqvist is Senior Vice President of Sustainability at SCA
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