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Canadian business can no longer ignore sustainable development

David McInnes is principal at DMci Strategies, chair of WaterAid Canada, and former CEO of Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute

Canada adopted the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, kicking off a bold global agenda to improve the health of people and the planet by 2030. This has gone largely unnoticed by Canadian business, but that will change. Over time, the goals will influence many business decisions, consumer purchases and domestic policies – and it's already happening.

The goals are particularly important for improving conditions in the developing world, building on previous efforts made by the UN. But the goals are relevant to us all. With 17 of them, they apply to everyone everywhere and they are all linked. Eliminating poverty (Goal 1) requires better global trade rules (Goal 17); taking climate action (Goal 13) enables sustainable food production (Goal 2); and having decent toilets (Goal 6) helps to keep girls in school (Goal 5).

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Industry has a big role to play. Achieving the goals will require up to $7-trillion (U.S.) in investment by 2030, the Government of Canada notes, which far exceeds global government aid to the developing world at $140-billion annually.

Seeing that the goals are good for business, global companies have begun to respond. Companies can scale up change through their vast supply chains, creating value and benefiting people. Even before the goals were launched, Unilever PLC announced it would double growth and halve its environmental footprint. By 2016, its sustainable brands were growing 50 per cent faster than other business lines, transforming its supply chains in the process. Aveda, a global hair-salon company, has reached back through its supply chain to improve water and sanitation in communities in Madagascar (which aligns with Goal 6), a country where it sources certain ingredients for its products. Agrium Inc., a Canadian fertilizer company, was among the first in this country to explicitly report on how it is advancing seven of the goals where it is making the greatest impact. For instance, it promotes the link between better fertilizer-handling and reduced water pollution (Goal 14) which also helps to increase food security (Goal 2).

But inappropriately embracing the goals carries risk. Companies will be called out for not being genuine or transparent. Green-washing will undermine consumer trust. For some time, the Access to Nutrition Index has tracked the largest food companies for contributing to global obesity and undernutrition (which lines up with Goal 2). The World Wildlife Fund has monitored deforestation by scoring companies on sustainably sourcing palm oil and soy (Goal 12). Another group has reported on child labour (Goal 16). Eventually, companies could be assessed against every goal.

Investors could awaken to the goals as financial risk is being linked to sustainability performance. Moody's now assesses the risk to mining companies of getting access to scarce water resources in developing countries. The Group of Twenty's central bankers want companies to disclose their climate-related financial risks to banks, insurers and pension funds.

Consumers will drive change. Those who today buy shade-grown coffee or fair-trade clothing could start looking for companies that score well on goal compliance.

Governments will want to show their progress. Canada's new "feminist" international-assistance policy directly supports Goal 5, gender equality. Domestic policy will be influenced. Food Secure Canada, an advocacy group, suggests that Canada's national food policy include a hunger target of zero for vulnerable Canadians, a Sustainable Development Goal theme. In the future, every federal ministry and agency could be expected to support relevant targets. This is starting to occur in the European Union.

The goals appear to be shaping how companies will compete. But these are early days yet. Right now, the first UN annual meeting is convening in New York (July 10-19) to review progress toward several of the goals. How the goals are interpreted and implemented matters. Companies need to be wary of well-intentioned ideas that can result in unintended consequences and costs. Industry can also bring solutions forward, such as how companies can provide world-class sustainable agricultural practices to the world. So, how can Canada distinguish itself as the world marches toward the 2030 deadline?

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It is in Canada's national interest to demonstrate global leadership. With the United States largely retreating from the global stage, Canada is determined to reinvigorate global rules and institutions. Canada could become a leader in galvanizing alignment to deliver on all 17 goals, engaging industry, researchers, government and non-government organizations, alike. By tapping into our innovation know-how, by leveraging our science and technology capabilities and by relying on our knack for collaborating, we could inspire the world by how we make progress on this 2030 agenda. That could affirm Canada's global brand for the 21st century.

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