Over the two years since the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) were launched, increasing numbers of food companies have sought to align their sustainability aims and objectives with the targets. Ben Cooper examines why and what benefits alignment could bring for the goals and for the companies themselves.

The identification of shared goals is a recurring theme in both the corporate rhetoric and action around sustainability, so it is little wonder the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) are becoming a focal point for food industry sustainability strategies.

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Officially coming into force on 1 January 2016, the 17 UN SDGs can justifiably be described as the most significant set of shared goals the world has ever seen. Forming the framework of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, they aim to build on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) but are more comprehensive, wide-ranging and ambitious. 

That UN SDG number 1 reads simply “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” arguably says all one needs to know about the transformation the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is designed to bring about.

The ambition and the wide scope of the goals speak to the extent of the challenges the world faces and, in the eyes of many, unsustainable practices on the part of global corporations have caused or exacerbated many of these problems. However, for companies seeking to operate sustainably and contribute to the resolution of those global challenges, the UN SDGs offer an unparalleled opportunity for alignment and engagement in a common cause.

Unilever CEO Polman promoting importance of washing hands through Lifebuoy brand initiative

The UN SDG opportunity

“The Global Goals are a great opportunity for business,” says Jeff Seabright, chief sustainability officer at Unilever. Moreover, the opportunity to which Seabright alludes goes well beyond being seen to be part of the solution.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman has been a key figure in the development of the UN SDGs and has looked to build support for the goals among CEOs by stressing the contribution the private sector can make to achieving them and articulating the business benefits he believes they can bring. 

Polman is co-founder of the Business & Sustainable Development Commission, a coalition of leaders from industry and civil society launched in January 2016. It aims to show why it makes business sense to align with the SDG agenda and quantify the dividends that can be reaped. 

According to the Commission’s Better Business Better World report, published in January 2017, the SDGs could create economic opportunities worth up to US$12trn, increasing employment by up to 380m jobs by 2030. “If you take food and agriculture alone, and if we address the challenges impacting the global food system, we’re looking at economic opportunities worth as much as US$2-3trn by 2030,” Seabright continues.

Consumer awareness of the SDGs 

Intuitively, given growing consumer concern over issues such as climate change and the growing prevalence of values-led consumerism, aligning with the SDGs should also add credibility to a company’s sustainability efforts and bring reputational enhancement. 

However, that depends on how aware consumers are of the SDGs. Nielsen surveyed more than 30,000 online consumers across 60 countries immediately prior to the adoption of the goals in September 2015 and found 47% were familiar or very familiar with the UN but only 27% were familiar or very familiar with the SDGs.

At this stage, it may be a question of food companies helping to build consumer awareness of the goals more than benefiting from any halo effect. “Corporate engagement can help bring attention to the issues and encourage greater support of the goals,” says Kris Charles, senior vice president for global corporate affairs at Kellogg. “By aligning our goals with the SDGs, we can help drive increased awareness and support of the goals, and contribute towards creating measurable progress.”

However, Ruth Mhlanga, private sector policy advisor at Oxfam GB, pointing to the current low levels of public trust in corporations, questions how effective companies trumpeting their alignment with the SDGs might be.

“I’m not sure companies investing time in publicly communicating how they’re meeting the framework would help,” Mhlanga tells just-food. “We’re in a period where people trust businesses less. So, returning trust is a really big deal for businesses at the moment. It is not useful if companies’ communications are based on superficial alignment. This will further erode trust.” Trumpeting alignment with a framework that consumers know nothing about may not be effective, Mhlanga adds. Instead, companies need to go “back to basics and the issues that concern people”.

Oxfam’s advice on corporate engagement with the SDGs

– Engagement must be predicated on responsible business conduct, including increased efforts to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

– Avoid ‘cherry-picking’ SDGs that maximise profits while avoiding areas where your company has a negative impact on the goals.

– Match the ambition of the SDG agenda by looking at how commercial practices in key areas such as sourcing, employment and tax planning might undermine progress towards the SDGs.

– Track progress through reliable, standardised, comparable data that is accessible to all stakeholders. 

– Companies should use their relationship with governments and peers constructively, and avoid a race to the bottom on governance under the guise of progress.

Food companies also recognise there may be more consumer recognition of the underlying issues than of the SDGs. “It’s generally true to say that consumers are unlikely to be aware of the individual SDGs or shop for them at the point of sale,” says Jonathan Horrell, sustainability director at Mondelez International. “However, it’s clear that many of them care about the things that are spoken to by the SDGs.”

Mehmood Khan, vice chairman and chief scientific officer for global research and development at PepsiCo, concurs. “To many consumers, whether they are aware of the SDGs or not, the aspirations that the goals represent are increasingly important. Explaining how we are addressing these priorities can help companies and brands to connect with their audiences and demonstrate shared values.”

The key SDGs for food companies

It is no surprise food manufacturers have been prominent in the first wave of corporations aligning with the UN SDGs, as sustainable food production, agriculture and access to nutrition are hugely significant within the UN SDG agenda.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is the custodian agency designated to monitor indicators across six of the 17 goals – numbers 2, 5, 6, 12, 14 and 15. Covering areas such as eliminating hunger, building food security and a sustainable agricultural system, access to water and sanitation, sustainable production and consumption and protecting forests and oceans, these six are among the key SDGs for food companies. In addition, UN SDG 3 “to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages” is hugely relevant for food companies.

Four other goals are relevant to all companies. UN SDG 9 pertains to infrastructure, sustainable industrialisation and innovation, while UN SDG 13 supports action on climate change. Meanwhile, UN SDG 8 covers sustainable economic growth and full employment, and UN SDG 17 calls for a strengthening partnership in pursuit of global sustainability.

At PepsiCo, Khan identifies UN SDGs 2, 3, 6, 8, 12 and 13 as having “particular relevance” to the company’s own Performance with Purpose 2025 agenda. Kellogg emphasises alignment with UN SDG 2 (zero hunger), UN SDG 5 (gender equality), UN SDG 12.3 (which aims to halve food loss and waste by 2030) and UN SDG 13 on climate change.

In its Impact for Growth 2016 Progress Report, Mondelez flags up alignment with as many as ten of the goals. “Many of the programmes were designed before the SDGs were finalised, and we don’t chase the SDGs in the way that we frame programmes,” Horrell says. “What we find is there is good alignment in our key programmes. We think they [the SDGs] are a good validation in general that we’re focusing on key issues.”

Meanwhile, Dave Stangis, vice president for corporate responsibility and sustainability at Campbell Soup Company, says: “We have mapped our material issues, determined by our annual materiality assessment, to all 17 of the SDGs. We have threads of work that cut across every SDG. The SDGs provide a roadmap for companies and countries alike to set targets and report progress over time to achieve a sustainable future.” Continuous assessment and measurement are key features of the UN SDG framework, and sustainability data from food companies could usefully feed into the UN SDG data collection process.

However, Oxfam’s Mhlanga says company data must be “reliable, standardised and comparable” for this to be effective. To that end, the UN Global Compact published a report earlier this year entitled Business Reporting on the SDGs: An Analysis of the Goals and Targets, which it describes as “a first step towards a uniform mechanism for business to report on their contribution to and impact on the SDGs in an effective and comparable way”.

Inclusive approach

A further defining characteristic of the UN SDG agenda, which may in itself help to explain why companies have been so ready to align with the goals, is the importance attached to the role of the private sector.

“The language of the SDGs is inclusive and I think there is recognition in the SDGs of the absolute need to work with the private sector. So, the tone of the discussion around the SDGs is certainly open and inclusive in that regard,” says Rocco Renaldi, secretary-general of the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA), a coalition comprising 12 multinational food groups convened to engage with the World Health Organization’s Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health.

The WHO took a highly sceptical view of food sector engagement on the dietary health agenda and Jorge Fonseca, agro-industry officer at the FAO, concedes some within UN agencies will still have “reservations” about corporations engaging in contentious policy areas such as health and nutrition.

“There is no internal consensus,” Fonseca says. “A lot of people have reservations about it. Certainly, there are always going to be issues with collaborating. But on the other side, the FAO has increasingly established collaborations with private corporations and we see this as an opportunity.”

Without doubt, the private sector – and food companies in particular – have a critical role to play in meeting the UN SDGs. “There are real benefits from food companies aligning their goals,” says Dr. Liz Goodwin, senior fellow and director for food loss and waste at US-based non-profit The World Resources Institute (WRI). “The SDGs require concerted efforts by a wide range of stakeholders including businesses, governments and civil society. Businesses are able to bring drive and commitment. They can mobilise and make a difference relatively quickly.”

I’m not sure we’ve seen the same level of enthusiasm from SME-type businesses or smaller entrepreneurs

However, Mhlanga believes there is more scope for SMEs to engage. “The SDGs are an opportunity for all forms of business to get involved in contributing to a world without poverty. A lot of multinational corporations have jumped into this conversation but I’m not sure we’ve seen the same level of enthusiasm from SME-type businesses or smaller entrepreneurs. It seems the conversation is quite dominated by the multinational corporations so we’re saying this is actually for everybody.”

Partnership critical to SDG agenda

Renaldi suggests a positive development in the UN SDG framework could be UN agencies convening multi-stakeholder forums for specific goals, which would be very much in keeping with the commitment to partnership enshrined in the UN SDG framework. UN SDG 17 is unique among the goals as it essentially pertains to the process rather than an endpoint.

However, the commitment to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development” is seen by food companies as embodying one of the programme’s key strengths. Horrell says the emphasis on partnership is “absolutely crucial” and a “step forward”.

Improving sustainability in food production and agriculture presents particular challenges that need to be addressed collaboratively. “Food and agriculture bring together a number of the goals with complex, inter-dependent issues like hunger and nutrition, gender, livelihoods, water and energy,” Horrell says. “This is where Goal 17, which is about partnering with others to make a sustainable impact at scale, is critical so we can share best practice, scale up and avoid working in silos.”

Seabright cites as an example the Food and Land Use Coalition, another initiative chaired by Unilever CEO Polman. “The Coalition brings together diverse stakeholders to look at how we can meet the four-fold challenge of protecting natural resources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, healthily feeding the planet and improving farmer prosperity,” Unilever’s Seabright explains.

Christian Frutiger, global head public affairs at Nestle, adds: “Achieving the SDGs will only be possible through more effective and dynamic multi-stakeholder approach and partnership at local, national and international levels. Nestle strives to play its part and urges others to join collective effort working with civil society, governments and others.”

Another significant coalition is Champions 12.3, a coalition of business, governments and other stakeholders seeking to mobilise action in pursuit of the third target under UN SDG 12, which aims to reduce per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level by 50% and reduce food losses along production and supply chains.

Goodwin says Champions 12.3 shows how powerful private sector leadership can be. “Business involvement is vital to the success of global efforts like the Sustainable Development Goals, and because the private sector is showing leadership in achieving Target 12.3, we can meet the target, though there is still quite a lot of work to do in the next 13 years and many more must become engaged.”

More alignment to come

Given the response to date from food companies, it seems very likely the coming months and years will see more food companies aligning with the UN SDGs.

Last week, Thai meat and seafood company Charoen Pokphand Group unveiled new 2020 sustainability goals, stating its new targets are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. Last month, US-based flavourings specialist McCormick & Co. also unveiled new sustainability goals for 2025, stating these too were aligned with the SDGs.

Michael Okoroafor, vice president for global sustainability and packaging innovation at McCormick,  sees the UN SDGs as “a set of principles that for the most part are quantifiable and science-based”. He adds aligning with these common objectives provides a common framework it can share with global partners which “allows us all to be on the same page”.

The benefit of aligning our updated strategy with the UN SDGs is the SDGs offer a common language across organisations – companies, civil society and governments

US confectioner Hershey is in the process of updating its sustainability strategy with a view to publishing new goals later this year or early in 2018. The company says it also intends to align its new strategy with the UN SDGs. “The benefit of aligning our updated strategy with the UN SDGs is the SDGs offer a common language across organisations – companies, civil society and governments,” a spokesperson for Hershey says. “This should make identifying potential partnerships easier.”

A new template for sustainable business

The language and tone of corporate communication concerning alignment with the SDGs is generally positive, constructive and optimistic. Companies are stressing where they are in harmony with this ground-breaking and ambitious programme which in itself offers a vision of hope, notwithstanding the huge challenges the UN SDGs represent.

A spirit of optimism and positivity at this stage is understandable and desirable. However, the fact what is being embarked upon is so unprecedented must also give cause for caution and reservation.

By aligning with the goal,s food companies are in a sense adopting a template for sustainable growth and for sustainable business, and it is a template that has not been conceived solely by business interests but by a wide range of stakeholders including companies.

Seabright stresses the voice of the business world was represented in the development of SDGs. His boss Polman served on the United Nations’ High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. “We made sure, through an extensive business consultation, that we were representing the voice of business in the discussions,” he says.

That multi-stakeholder partnership is such an important feature of the UN SDG agenda is seen as one of its key strengths and so it is. However, partnerships between diverse organisations can also become sources of tension. Oxfam’s vision of alignment between business and the SDGs is markedly different from that of most companies, even if there is common ground.

Horrell believes tensions and differences are nothing to be feared. “The SDGs describe the outcomes that we’re seeking to achieve. They don’t necessarily prescribe how. There will be different views, challenging stakeholders about ways of working and there will be debates, and I think that’s very important and a strength of the process. I would not expect everybody to agree about how to achieve the goals. There will be a lot of debate around that and I think that’s a good thing.”

The word alignment carries with it a certain notion of completion, reaching a settled point. In this instance, that is most certainly not the case. In aligning with the SDGs, food companies are only really adopting a common starting point. Remaining aligned during what will be a testing 13-year journey will be the challenge.