What does sustainability really mean? Do businesses have to find a meaning in sustainability? How do businesses integrate sustainability with competitive practices? Rather, do businesses have to integrate sustainability with competitive practices? Who even bares the cost of sustainability? What about the sustainability of sustainability?
Interestingly, the term ‘sustainability’ first appeared in the 1970s. At the time the concept drew from ecological disasters. Within a decade, sustainability expanded to include a wider and encompassing meaning. Sustainability became ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.
By 2015, sustainability further refined its avatar as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), comprising 17 goals and 169 distinct targets across environmental, social and economic indicators. Pertinently, the SDGs underscored the critical role of businesses in sustainability - not just in contributing to, but meeting SDG targets. And that marked the beginning of the ballad of sustainability and businesses.
Forums were set up to encourage sustainability in business practices. Important statistics and data found their way in the headlines. It was said that SDGs could generate at least USD 12 Trillion in business savings and revenues across four sectors by 2030 – energy, cities, food and agriculture. SDG-led solutions were to enable businesses to manage their risks, anticipate consumer demands, strengthen supply chains and build positions in growth markets. ‘Business cases’ for sustainability were crafted and deliberated.
Businesses reciprocated the attention. Around 2017, Paul Polman, (then) CEO, Unilever remarked that if a company wanted to prosper in the long term, putting sustainability at the centre of business operations was essential. In 2019, the UN Global Compact-Accenture Report, drew insights from over 1000 CEOs across the globe and found that the business case for sustainability was clear and businesses were ready to embrace sustainability at its core and (also) act!
Over time, the discussion around sustainability and the role of businesses evolved. New commitments and targets were deliberated.
Unfortunately, the deliberations remained within the glass walls of the Global North, or the developed world. The Global South, or the developing world and also the manufacturing segment of the value chain, largely watched.
A significant landmark in the evolution of sustainability was Business & Human Rights (BHR). Officially launched as the UN Guiding Principles on BHR (2011), the concept underpins the responsibility of States in protecting and the duty of businesses in respecting human rights – not just in business operations but through their supply chains. Further, the guidelines expect States and Businesses to provide efficient and accessible redressal in case of human rights violations.
On this front, the Global North, assuming the responsibility of cleaning up global supply chains, moved at an incredible pace. Unfortunately, once again without deliberations with the Global South.
Several States such as Germany, Norway, France, United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Belgium have mandated companies beyond a certain threshold to undertake human rights due diligence across their global supply chains. The European Union is taking a step ahead and considering an import ban on forced labour and modern slavery. Australia and the United States have announced similar intentions.
The due diligence laws, albeit crafted with bona fide intentions, fail to understand and consider the social, economic, and cultural nuances of the developing States. Further, as the developing world grapples with unpacking sustainability, it seems unfair to use the buyer’s advantage and expect certain standards to be implemented without sharing the cost and shouldering equal responsibilities.
Realising the gap between the understanding and practicality around sustainability, specifically BHR, a platform such as the Business & Human Rights Network can simplify and break down sustainability concepts, specifically under BHR, for South Asian businesses. The Network also aspires to create a voice for South Asian businesses and conduct North–South dialogues.
These dialogues will bring businesses and important stakeholders from developed and developing States together to discuss pragmatic ways of implementing principles of sustainability. The idea is to understand how South Asian businesses can navigate the paradigm of sustainability and BHR, become more resilient and competitive, and meaningfully engage with the North.
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