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nitrogen and phosphorus


Sustainable development: trust the science and get ready for constant change

Published 21 September 2021 in Magazine • 12 min read

The UN set ambitious targets to clean up the world by 2030, but business leaders need to do more to make them a reality.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals, launched six years ago, set an ambitious agenda to transform the world by 2030. Businesses have been no stranger to the goals. Even before their release, corporate leaders contributed to their development and lobbied for more involvement in the agenda. Since then, many companies have adopted the goals for communication purposes and to help guide their sustainability strategies. Open any company’s sustainability report today and you will likely find a reference to the SDGs — they have infiltrated the corporate world.  

What exactly has been achieved? Are corporations working towards the transformative change that is so desperately needed, or are they using the SDGs as a smokescreen to continue business as usual? Clearly, there are many examples of sincere corporate-driven SDG efforts. But on the other side of the spectrum, companies sometimes use the SDG icons without critically evaluating their own environmental impact or contribution to achieving specific SDG targets. With only nine years remaining, many more corporations must scale up their contributions to achieve these goals. On the positive side, large corporations have the potential to drive the transformational and systemic change needed.  

One thing is sure, initiating this transformative change requires corporate leaders to develop new skills and new ways of working. The old strategies won’t get us there. If past approaches did work, we wouldn’t need the SDG agenda.

Climate change

What can corporate leaders do to step up their commitments to the SDGs? We studied interactions among prominent leaders in business, science, and the UN to understand the unprecedented cross-sectoral collaboration that led businesses to adopt the SDGs. Our findings are based on an extensive ethnographic study with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the world’s largest business association for sustainability. Amanda Williams (co-author of this article) was periodically embedded at the WBCSD from May 2014 through March 2017. During this time, she conducted field research for her PhD and worked as an associate on the Redefining Value Team. Her main task was to support the development of the SDG Compass, a guide for business action on the SDGs. Our research identified important mechanisms employed by the cross-sector leaders that triggered WBCSD’s engagement with the SDGs. These mechanisms — science-based approaches, embracing disequilibrium, and bridging boundaries — are also important at a corporate level to help drive the change in business practices necessary to achieve the SDGs.

The nine boundaries we cross at our peril

The nine planetary boundaries (see left) define the safe operating space for humanity. When these boundaries are transgressed, risks for humanity increase.

OzoneThe stratospheric ozone layer in the atmosphere filters out ultraviolet radiation from the sun. If this layer decreases, increasing amounts of UV radiation can cause a higher incidence of skin cancer in humans, and damage to terrestrial and marine biological systems.

Tortoise extinction Human activities can lead to severe biodiversity loss and extinctions, as a result of growing demand for food, water and natural resources.

Radioactive trashEmissions of toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds and radioactive materials can have potentially irreversible effects on living organisms and on the physical environment.

Polar bearRecent evidence suggests that the Earth has already transgressed the planetary boundary and is approaching several Earth system thresholds. The loss of summer polar sea-ice. is almost certainly irreversible.

Dead coralAround a quarter of the CO2 that humanity emits into the atmosphere is ultimately dissolved in the oceans. The resulting increased acidity makes it hard for organisms such as corals to survive. A change in ocean ecosystems could lead to drastic reductions in fish stocks. 

Dry RiverThe consequences of human modification of water bodies include global-scale river flow changes and shifts in vapor flows arising from land use change. These shifts in the hydrological system can be abrupt and irreversible.

Rain ForestForests, grasslands, wetlands and other vegetation types have been converted to agricultural land and other human uses all over the planet. This change has a serious impact on biodiversity and water flows.

nitrogen and phosphorusThe biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus have been radically changed by humans as a result of many industrial and agricultural processes, with negative consequences for the biosphere and oceans.

aerosol planet Aerosols in the atmosphere affect cloud formation and patterns of atmospheric circulation, such as the monsoon systems in tropical regions. They also have a direct effect on climate, by changing how much solar radiation is reflected or absorbed in the atmosphere.

Science-based approaches

In our study, we found that both the UN and the WBCSD used science as an input for developing global sustainability agendas. The planetary boundaries framework, published in the scientific journals Nature, Ecology & Society and Science, acted as a basis for both the UN SDGs and the WBCSD’s former corporate environmental strategy called Action2020. Developed by 28 Earth system scientists from around the world and coordinated by the Stockholm Resilience Center, the framework identifies nine Earth systems processes that define the safe operating space for humanity. The risks increase when the boundaries are overstepped and these Earth systems are pushed into an unsafe domain.

According to Peter Bakker, CEO of  the WBCSD: “Science brings the facts. Business can then act on these facts.” A science-based agenda provides legitimacy for sustainability actions and aligns business intentions with evidence-based scientific recommendations for sustainability pathways. The WBCSD used the planetary boundaries framework as a basis for a collective business action plan. Ban Ki-moon, the former UN Secretary-General, also championed the use of science as a basis for the SDGs. As quoted in a UN News article, he said: “Help us defend the science that shows we are destabilizing our climate and stretching planetary boundaries to a perilous degree.” The scientists behind the framework helped inform the SDG negotiation process. The framework itself facilitated the development of the SDGs by allowing members of different communities to interact and work towards a common purpose around a common set of understandings. It also simplifies complex Earth system science into a single, visually appealing framework that is easy to understand. Since the UN and the WBCSD were using the same science, it was easier to align their visions on global sustainability on the basis of the SDGs.

On trend
On trend: H&M is using recycled materials and classic designs to increase the sustainability of its clothing

While our study shows that science-based agendas have clear benefits for stimulating action on the SDGs, developing an agenda based on science is easier said than done. It can be difficult for scientists and managers to collaborate because they rely on different knowledge systems and have different aims and interests. The WBCSD faced many challenges while collaborating with the Stockholm Resilience Center scientists, such as conflicting professional values and interests related to sustainability change pathways. Meeting the targets outlined by the scientists would require some industries to fundamentally change their business models and products, creating friction between researchers and business leaders. But these tensions were alleviated by the involvement of an intermediary organization, the World Resources Institute, in setting the science-based targets. (The institute is a trusted partner of the WBCSD with long-term experience operating at the interface of business and science.) The science foundation built in Action2020 led to future strategy projects, including Vision2050, which provides  “the business community with comprehensive, reliable and ambitious guidance on how it can lead the transformations the world urgently needs for 9+ billion people to live well, within planetary boundaries, by 2050.”

Several companies have used the planetary boundaries framework as a basis for corporate action. H&M, the fashion retailer, seeks to help the textile industry to operate within the boundaries by implementing a circular economy approach, involving the use of more environmentally friendly fibers and textiles. Houdini, a Swedish sportswear company, used the framework to understand the impacts of its operations and to prioritize future sustainability actions. Its first sustainability report “assessed the impact of our fiber use – from understanding how sheep farming and grazing affect the impact that wool garments have on biological diversity in local ecosystems, to its impact on climate change on the global scale, for example.”  

Science-based corporate approaches are also starting to accelerate action on the climate change front. The Science-Based Targets initiative gives guidance on setting emissions reduction targets to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and 1,640 companies are following the advice. The initiative has developed scenarios and pathways aimed at limiting warming to 1.5°C, in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s SR15 report. Based on these pathways, it provides resources and models to enable companies to set their targets.

The initiative is an inspiring example of aligning corporate action with sustainability science. Climate action is, however, just one of the 17 SDGs and it is arguably one of the easier goals to align with science, because the science is clear and companies’ climate impact is measurable. Corporate approaches to managing and restoring biodiversity are also gaining momentum, and will likely soon be grounded in science-based guidance on biodiversity practices. However, the social SDGs pose a particular challenge because they are difficult to measure quantitatively.

Embracing disequilibrium

Sustainability is constantly changing. New sustainability trends come and go. We found that to thrive in the world of sustainability, it is best to embrace the disequilibrium and leverage it to drive change. According to Donella Meadows, the environmentalist, embracing disequilibrium means purposefully changing “the structure of systems to produce more of what we want”.

Our study of the WBCSD shows that change was critical for driving progress towards endorsing the SDGs. Bakker put disequilibrium at the heart of the organization’s strategy. This meant purposefully changing its strategic focus at opportune moments to leave business-as-usual behind in favor of scaling up sustainability action.

He described his leadership approach in this way: “I have a fundamental belief that is underlying my style, I guess, that is the only constant in life is change. And if you believe that you can run anything with not changing it, you are not going to be successful. If you believe you can run an organization that is focused on sustainability, you haven’t understood what sustainability is about, you can’t do that without constant change.”   

Bakker’s leadership style was also recognized by The Guardian newspaper which described the CEO as “shaking up the [WBCSD], telling members to shape up or ship out, and being instrumental in creating broad collaborations, rather than trying to ‘own’ initiatives.” The constant change was difficult for many staff members, as is often the case with change initiatives. They had to adjust their working style to accommodate the constant change by becoming comfortable with working in ambiguous situations with high levels of uncertainty. Many reported that they worked by learning as they went along, without a detailed roadmap. Transformational change is needed to achieve the SDGs — things cannot stay the same. Corporate leaders can leverage opportunities internally to take advantage of change and keep progress moving towards the SDGs by embracing disequilibrium.  

Peter Bakker
“If you believe you can run an organization that is focused on sustainability, you haven’t understood what sustainability is about, you can’t do that without constant change. ”
- Peter Bakker of the WBCSD

Companies also recognize that achieving sustainability comes with a lot of change, and the SDGs are likely to guide the direction in which the changes happen. The Business and Sustainable Development Commission was a two-year initiative launched to develop the business case for the SDGs. Its flagship report, Better Business Better World, identifies the business opportunities aligned with achieving the SDGs. Realizing those opportunities means transforming whole industries and business models. For instance, Indian conglomerate Aditya Birla recognizes that many regulatory and operating changes are needed to achieve a sustainable world. Its sustainability plan is based on mitigation and adaptation to changes in external factors, such as regulatory changes that are aligned with achieving the SDGs. Scenario planning with experts helps it to build the skills necessary to cope with the change.  

Bridging boundaries

Working across societal sectors is not new, but it is hard and difficult to get right. However, it is essential for achieving the SDGs. The issues represented by the SDGs — climate action, reduced inequalities and ending hunger — require systemic action at a global level. Business operates at scale and has the resources to make a difference, but it must act in concert with NGOs, scientists and policymakers to make a collective difference. We found that building relationships across sectors was crucial for the WBCSD’s endorsement of the SDGs and we identified three practices — bridging, bonding and connecting — that leaders used to successfully bridge sectoral divides.

Bridging, or demonstrating public support for each other’s initiatives, was one way that leaders in our study drove progress towards the SDGs. For example, UN leaders highlighted the support of business and science contributions to the SDGs by inviting business leaders and scientists as panelists and allowing them to provide input to the open working groups. Such public displays of support help to establish the legitimacy of the other sector’s input and to gain momentum around a shared vision.

Bonding, or forming strong interpersonal ties, was also important. Interviewees from our study mentioned high levels of trust and chemistry across sectors between key individuals. These relationships were formed over time and many of the individuals had worked together before collaborating on the SDGs. Social bonding is a key element of driving change across sectors.

Connecting – increasing the chances for serendipitous relationships to form – was another important leadership practice. As we mentioned, many of the key individuals from our study knew each other before working together on the SDGs — but this did not happen by chance. Rather, leaders purposefully created social conditions and opportunities that fostered new relationships which later formed the basis for collective action. This means getting out of the office and being open to meeting new leaders from different sectors, without an overall strategic plan of what the relationships may or may not become. These serendipitous encounters formed the basis of many relationships in our study.      

Paul Polman is an example of a corporate leader who is particularly successful at bridging boundaries. As CEO of Unilever, he represented the voice of business in the SDG negotiation processes. He galvanized and represented that voice in many cross-sectoral forums and high-level panels. He continues to mobilize business around the SDGs as co-founder and chair of IMAGINE.

Four companies leading the way on SDGs

The British multinational consumer goods company, was an early voice calling for more business engagement with the SDGs. It uses the SDGs as a foundation for its partnerships.

The holiday company, seized the opportunity presented by the SDGs to integrate sustainability throughout all levels of the organization, set divisional commitments to the goals, and integrated them into its mission statement.

The Danish engineering group, is using the SDGs as a yardstick to increase the percentage of its services that relate to SDG targets. 

The global energy group, launched SDG-linked bonds, creating the opportunity for market investments along 4 SDGs — climate, energy, infrastructure and cities.


Implications for corporate action on the SDGs

A lot needs to be done before 2030 to reach the targets set out by the SDGs. The goals are an unprecedented agenda — never before have so many diverse partners worked together towards a common global vision for a sustainable future. Based on our extensive research of leaders from business, science and the UN, we identified several mechanisms that have helped drive progress towards the SDGs. These mechanisms are most applicable to corporate leaders that are in the position to lead change internally and to work with other leaders in different sectors towards the goals. Internally, corporate leaders can base their sustainability strategies on science while embracing disequilibrium to drive change. Externally, corporate leaders must work across societal sectors to drive change. Bridging, bonding and connecting are important practices for establishing the strong relationships that are necessary for SDG-driven action across societal sectors.


Amanda Williams

Amanda Williams

Research fellow at IMD Business School

Amanda Williams is a research fellow at IMD Business School. She was formally a senior researcher at ETH Zurich, a research fellow at Copenhagen Business School, and a Research Associate at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development where she worked on the SDG Compass, a guide for corporate action on the SDGs. Her research focuses on how organizations understand global sustainability issues and develop corporate sustainability strategies that align with global sustainability targets.

Gail Whiteman

Gail Whiteman

Founder of Arctic Basecamp and Professor of Sustainability at the University of Exeter’s Business School (UK)

Gail Whiteman is the Founder of Arctic Basecamp and Professor of Sustainability at the University of Exeter’s Business School in the UK. A visiting professor at IMD, she is an expert on global risk arising from the systemic changes occurring in the natural environment. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Frontier Risk, and Professor-in-Residence at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. She is actively involved in building science-based targets for a future low-carbon economy.

John N Parker

John N. Parker

Associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo

John N Parker is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo. His research focuses on understanding the social organization of science, creativity, and emotions. His work has been published in journals such as American Sociological Review, Sociological Theory, Sociological Methods & Research, and Social Studies of Science.



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