A more sustainable world is also good business

Green Transition 5 November 2018 Neel Strøbæk

Contributing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals isn’t just an ethical obligation for companies, it also makes business sense – for themselves and their clients.

Expert columns
8 min

By Neel Strøbæk 

The world in 2018 has no shortage of difficult global challenges. Least of all when it comes to sustainability. Luckily, the UN has defined a useful guideline consisting of 17 so-called SDG’s – Sustainable Development Goals, also called the Global Goals.

The SDG’s were the focal point of debate at the P4G summit in Copenhagen, but discussing how best to achieve these goals is not limited to political circles. It's also on the agenda in the corporate world and, in particular, here in Ramboll. With 14,000 employees in 35 countries, Nordic origin and a strong tradition for social responsibility, we need to be an obvious leader in this area. 

According to experts such as Harvard Business School, companies like ours have a significant responsibility. As a large consultancy with distinctive expertise in engineering we employ people who can calculate all aspects of multidisciplinary projects. 

This distinctive responsibility is all the more urgent now that the US and other significant players on the global political scene have decided to down-rate their sustainability ambitions. That means that private sector companies, together with cities and states, must take charge and fill out the responsibility gap. 

Global Goals for all the world 

First, it's important to establish that neither the UN nor I distinguish between developing and developed countries anymore. As the name more than indicates, the Global Goals apply to the whole world – unlike previous poverty goals (Millennium Development Goals) that were focused on the poorer countries.

Ramboll is still involved in projects that could be categorized as traditional development work, such as securing clean drinking water in Bangladesh or helping Uganda establish a crucial bridge.

However, most of our clients from e.g. Asia and Africa are interested in gaining insight into expertise and experiences from projects in the Western world. We see this first hand when we take clients and business relations on a tour of our Danish projects; they acknowledge that our expertise can still make an impact and improve sustainability in companies, cities and countries that are actually quite well-functioning to begin with. 

For example, we cooperated with Stanford University to help a drought-stricken California map and secure its groundwater, and we helped clients in London with offsite construction, material reuse and building with cross-laminated timber. All these initiatives are good for the environment and limit the use of resources, but they also save the client a lot of time and money. 

Sustainability on the bottom line 

This brings me to my main point: as a company, we further sustainability not only because it contributes to a better world, but also because it attracts the best employees and motivates them to stick around, and because it contributes to a better bottom line for our clients and for ourselves. In short, sustainability pays off –  in the long run and often in the short run too.

There is nothing new or revolutionary about the claim that sustainability is a sound investment. In fact, Gro Harlem Brundtland emphasized this point in her ground-breaking UN-report in 1987, and e.g. Sir Nicolas Stern and London School of Economics have called attention to the subject, specifically in the field of climate change, since 2006. But they primarily reviewed the subject through a socio-economic lens. 

Based on experience from thousands of projects worldwide, our assessment is that sustainable solutions very often pay off for the individual client, also from a cost-benefit perspective. 

The good is not the enemy of the best

All Ramboll’s projects somehow overlap with the SDG’s and therefore, it is important to make sure that none of our projects have a negative impact on people or nature. But according to an extensive analysis, 47 percent of Ramboll’s project turnover has a direct and positive impact on one or more of the 17 SDG’s. And almost all the remaining turnover indirectly impacts at least one of the goals positively. 

Of course, there are projects where the positive contribution towards one goal is at the expense of another – or where you could argue that a more ambitious project could have made a greater impact on more agendas. 

An example is our gas project in Morocco, which relates to the goal of ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all (SDG 7): here, some might argue that solar energy would make a more positive contribution, because it also complies with the call for climate action in SDG 13. 

But in this context, it is important to emphasise that every country has its specific set of challenges. In Morocco, the challenge is first and foremost to become less dependent on expensive imported oil (which is also far more CO2-problematic than gas), and to secure more energy to further education and growth. 

To a wide extent, we must accept that a good solution is not the antithesis of the best solution. 

Sustainability in a wide sense   

One of the major challenges concerning the SDG’s is that the fruits of the efforts – both our own on those of others – are difficult to measure. But here we can also offer expertise.

We are part of a project that creates better tools for the Danish Parliament to measure whether Denmark is making progress, and we are helping the Swedish innovation agency get a good grip of their SDG-contribution. 

Overall, we make a point of communicating the fact that sustainability should be understood in broad terms: it is not only about accomplishing environmental sustainability – we also need to secure social and economic sustainability.

One of the largest climate adaptation projects in Denmark can serve as an example of this: in Kokkedal, we were part of protecting the local residents from floods and other consequences of cloudbursts. But the project also reimagined a worn-down neighbourhood and gave it a green recreational boost. 

It is an experience like this, as well as similar learnings from Copenhagen, that form the basis of our work with New York’s environmental authorities, who wants to calculate social, economic and climate related consequences of investing in increased resilience. As many others, that calculation weigh in favour of making an effort with the SDG’s. 

 

Photo credit: Neil Kremer 

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