4 learnings from Sustainable Business Day

Leading professionals at Sustainable Business Day 2016 in Stockholm, the largest arena for sustainability in the Nordics, seemed to agree on at least one thing: the ball is in the private sector’s court to make sustainable development a reality. What did I learn about how businesses can lead sustainable development and what does it mean from a communications perspective?

A magnificent year for sustainability and a changed mind-set

2015 marked two major events in sustainability: the historical COP21 climate agreement and the launch of the UN’s 2030 agenda through 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sustainability has rapidly changed from a nice-to-have to a must-have, and the question is not why to work with sustainability, but how to work with it. The change of the business community’s mind-set has already been fast – but have concrete actions followed fast enough? For now, we can only say that there is no time to slow down.

Here are the four key learnings from Sustainable Business Day to keep the momentum going:

1. Set goals outside-in
2. Elect ambassadors for SDGs
3. Look at investors as messengers for what citizens want
4. Lead ecosystem change

Set goals outside-in

The question is of course a politically sensitive one: whose job is it to end poverty and to make sure that the planet’s resources are used sustainably, people are treated equally and cities are developed sustainably? The name of the Day being Sustainable Business, it comes as no surprise that the business community is convinced, ready and motivated to accept the job, set goals – and to take the lead.

According to Ole Hansen, Chief of UN Global Compact’s Business of Tomorrow, the private sector now has the “license to lead”: companies and investors are central to the successful implementation of the SDGs.

However, the critical task is to translate the SDGs into concrete business goals: for example, what does the two-degree global warming target or the aim for no one to live with less than $1.25 a day mean to companies in practice? In other words, the megatrends, big global goals and societal needs should guide businesses’ strategic goal setting from the outside-in. Goals should be formulated starting with the SDGs and moving from there to the business level.

Sustainability is good business, but one of the biggest challenges is the short-termism of budgets, measuring and follow-up. The challenge is to really embrace the “slowness of good” as well as find new vocabulary and tools suitable for the business context, where quartiles are still central in decision making.

Elect ambassadors for SDGs

It’s no surprise, that the colourful palette with the 17 SDGs and their respective icons was seen a dozen times during the day. Elaine Weidman Grunewald, VP Sustainability and CR at Ericsson, introduced one of the most inspiring practical examples for embracing the SDGs I have seen since their launch. Ericsson’s top executives have each devoted themselves to an SDG and thus act as the SDG Ambassador within the company. Employees are also engaged, made accountable and given purpose in their everyday job through a selected SDG. Everybody wants to feel that they are part of changing the world for the better.

Implementation of the SDGs needs to happen on all levels and in every function of a company. If it is just a top level strategy, it doesn’t mean it is on an employee’s daily agenda. The real challenge is communicating this, because there is always the danger that only “the believers” will follow the vision. Make sure the implementation of SDGs isn’t superimposed and doesn’t seem like just another pretty management programme. Given the resources, direction and support, your employees would love to be part of changing the world and making good business at the same time. Which SDG would you pick?


Ericsson’s inspiring example of how to embrace the SDGs (picture: Ericsson)

Look at investors as messengers for what people want

Although deep sustainability knowledge is still relatively niched, the investor community is increasingly aware and interested in sustainability. It is important that the gap between “believers” and mainstream investors doesn’t grow. Zaiga Strautmane, Head of ESG at Unipension, claimed that driving political agendas through pension funds “is the new black”. By this, she referred to the fact that active ownership is required more and more due to the growing sustainability demands from pension funds. These demands in turn arise from the media, NGOs and other stakeholders. Today, more than ever before, people want to be heard.

This leads to investors having to address and, to some extent, filter these demands, because they still have to keep their focus on the ultimate task of an investor, making profit. Strautmane’s advice to companies is to look at investors as messengers for what people – not just investors – want. Values and communicating them reliably do matter. Strautmane concluded by highlighting the relevance of integrated reporting in this changing investor context.

Lead ecosystem change

What can we do for each other? When you, as a company, have taken a good, hard look in the mirror, it is time to look at your peers and aim to become an industry leader.

Elisabeth Dahlin, Secretary General from Save the Children Sweden, stated that the only way forward is equal and targeted goal setting and collaboration between academia, business, NGOs and other actors. “Point with your whole hand” and take leadership, set concrete goals and focus on crystal clear communication. Then follow up to see it through. From an NGO perspective Dahlin pointed out that the partnership landscape and dynamics have changed. Today, business and NGOs together put pressure on governments, and sometimes businesses put pressure on NGOs to become better. It’s not just business giving money to the categorically “good” NGOs. The controversy of business-NGO partnerships has melted, but green and white washing partnerships can still be a risk.

According to Marc Pfitzer, Managing Director of FSG, a non-profit consulting firm focused on social change, businesses can lead ecosystem change by using their influence wisely. Ecosystem change can be driven by understanding the interdependencies within an ecosystem and how those should be adjusted to achieve the SDGs. For example, investing in pharmaceuticals in a sick society does not make people healthier and happier. Pfitzer encouraged companies and investors to look at the whole ecosystem that will really solve the problem. Sometimes companies and investors are too small by their own, and an aggregate can achieve much more. Large corporations can also be terribly slow, and partnering up with a smaller player can be a smart move.

To sum up: Communication is key

Effective communication is essential when implementing strategy and getting all stakeholders inside and outside the company on board. Moreover, to cater to investors growing needs for information and to collaborate with the entire ecosystem, your messages need to be clear.

It’s frequent among us sustainability professionals to preach to the church – to other sustainability professionals. Let’s challenge ourselves to find creative ways for communication to reach everyone.

Decisions-makers: Today, many companies especially in fields undergoing rapid technological progress can be years ahead of policies. It is important that these companies advocate the right sort of policies and work together with governments in order to make SDGs a reality.

Consumers: Never compromise value for money, product experience or convenience for sustainability – let’s face it, no one wants a worse product or service just because it is more sustainable. Reconsider how to communicate sustainable values and how to make them desirable for all.

Suppliers: Set ambitious supplier requirements and communicate them clearly to your suppliers. Create incentives for the supply chain to be sustainable and work together to achieve continuous improvement.

Employees: Make sure every employee is involved in co-creating the vision and understand their role in it. Remember that employer branding and sustainability are closely intertwined.

Investors: Investors channel a larger societal discussion. Thus, investors’ needs for information are broad, so cater to them transparently.

Partners: Maintain and initiate discussion within your ecosystem – don’t just look at your current network but aim to expand it and understand the big picture.


Ella Klar is a communications professional passionate about sustainable development. In addition to following discussions around making the world a better place, Ella gets excited about bicycle trips and urban culture.

Twitter: @klarmella