Identify the impact
India Inc. is crucial to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals announced by the United Nations but are we going in the right direction?
On 25 September, 193 world leaders met in New York at the UN General Assembly to formally adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), setting the stage to achieve zero global poverty by 2030. The SDGs’ 17 goals and 196 targets are built on the momentum of the Millennium Development Goals, which for the past 15 years have driven governments’ development policies, albeit with limited success.
Aiming to eliminate hunger, achieve gender equality, improve health and education, combat climate change and encourage sustainable practices, the SDGs are even more ambitious and targeted, encouraging partnerships and new financing models to achieve sustainable livelihoods for all. The crux is a call to the private sector to make responsibility central to business, encouraging firms to invest in activities and operations that have clear social and environmental returns.
India’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) mandate, as part of the Companies Act, 2013, has been a critical step in encouraging companies to think about sustainable development. As the first legislation of its kind in the world, it is estimated that there’s potential for up to Rs.14,000 crore funds per year for CSR.
The sum is not insignificant, but the results are, so far, not very encouraging. Some ambiguity in the rules, short time-frames and a clear directive that CSR cannot be tied to business outcomes have led India corporations to be risk-averse, investing in short-term philanthropic activities that don’t encourage companies to do what they should do best—utilize their skills, talent and technology to drive innovations that solve deep-rooted development problems.
The adoption of the SDGs will provide fresh momentum to usher in smart corporate approaches to tackle some challenges. However, this will only happen if industry, government, and the non-profit sector think ambitiously beyond the traditional scope of CSR. The world is embarking on a 15-year plan to end poverty, and corporate India has the potential to position itself at the heart of India’s progress.
Corporate sustainability often ends up as not much more than “nice-to-have” rhetoric. By aligning SDG indicators with corporate targets, companies can not only measure the impact they have on society and the environment, but also start to collectively assess the positive business impact of responsible practices—for operations, employee satisfaction, consumer engagement and licence to operate.
Mainstreaming responsibility into business isn’t easy, but if we can spark corporate India’s imagination into viewing development problems as business opportunities, there is no limit to the ways in which sustainable growth can be achieved.
Here are four ways in which this can work.
Market-oriented solutions: Those who live at the bottom of the pyramid are potential consumers and suppliers. Whether it’s priority-sector lending or last-mile distributors for nutrient-rich beverages, companies have the ability to build new markets for products and services that address key development issues while turning a profit.
Investing in innovation: Leveraging low-cost technology will be crucial to developing effective solutions in India. Frugal innovations such as low-cost mobile phones and tablets have been piloted across the country to improve the access to and quality of education. There is untapped potential for cost-effective innovations that improve lives within financially sustainable business models.
Skilling: The demographic dividend that exists, especially in rural markets, is key to meeting Indian firms’ employment demand. While the government is making strides in incentivizing and providing loans for training institutes, companies can provide the experience, efficiencies and technology to ensure that skilling programmes don’t just take place, but actually work.
Closed loop and low-carbon manufacturing: As “Make in India” gains momentum, companies need to build in sustainable practices throughout manufacturing and supply chains and close the loop on product life cycles. Reuse, recycle and minimize waste will be the name of the game—not only to preserve the world’s depleting resources, but also to keep Indian businesses competitive in globally.
In the 21st century, it’s increasingly clear that business growth means sustainable growth. As the SDGs come into effect in 2016, India will be provided with another opportunity to think differently about the private sector’s involvement and, hopefully, will redefine what the meaning of corporate social responsibility is for the country.
Payal Rajpal is director of social investment at Do One Thing, an impact consultancy based in Delhi.
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