The UN Global Compact, a collaborative initiative of global companies working together with UN member governments and affiliated civil society actors to advance societal goals, kicked off their Leaders Summit today. An annual gathering of the world's most vocal experts around the role business can and should play to affect change, the Leaders Summit is a who's who in the world of social impact and mission-driven business.
Originally, the event would have taken place at UN Headquarters in New York City. This year, of course, we were able to join virtually. The fact that the event was free to anyone who applied, and required no travel, nearly 20,000 attendees from all over the world joined in. The UN Global Compact team has made an effort to craft a robust 24-hour event that is accessible during all time-zones. It's been remarkable to see the effort in action.
The Summit has thus far focused on how business and purpose-centered leaders can coalesce to make global change, recover from the current COVID pandemic and associated economic slowdown, and address racial injustice while moving us into a place of equity and harmony. That’s quite a hefty task.
Whereas one may feel suspect of a coalition of businesses making much difference in our somewhat mad world these days, the sessions have brought me a sense of peace, hope and excitement.
For example during a brief networking round of speed chats, I met a 10th grader from Istanbul, Turkey, who had founded a women’s rights organization and was CEO of a girls’ education organization promoting gender equity in Turkey. In 10th grade! I met a human rights advisor who was working with the United Nations on equal rights for laborers in global supply chains. He was also an architect. Imagine that combination of talents! I also met a student from Poland who was studying international business, while advising the UN as part of their Youth Network. The young among us are truly not sitting idle. They are making change all around us. I heard from a young woman management consulting who in her spare time helps advocate against child labor and modern slavery. The problems our world faces are not insignificant, but if these are our future leaders, we are in good hands.
What was another element of the discussions I was encouraged by? How many companies, across a very diverse range of sizes, global footprint, industries and leadership, spoke out about their commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a suite of 17 social, economic and environmental goals that the United Nations has set out to acheive before 2030. Commitments around issues like responsible consumption and production, water and sanitation, quality education, access to healthcare, no poverty, and gender equity were extensively discussed in each of the breakouts I was in, as well as in plenary. Companies were honest about what makes them responsible stewards of the planet (or not) and suggested we call them out on their commitments. The CEO of beauty brand Natura, a Brazilian company that owns its own brand, plus those of Body Shop and Avon, even went so far as to say that companies must be held accountable. That we, as consumers and stakeholders, must push companies to be honest about what’s feasible and where there are gaps in their actions. That companies must set targets, no matter how small, and work towards making bigger goals and taking bigger action.
One of the most persuasive arguments for companies taking a leading role around the SDGs is actually imbedded in SDG 17, which calls for all global actors, businesses, civil society, governments, and individuals, to partner and work together to advance the other 16 goals in collaboration. In fact the Summit even held a “SDG Power Hour” towards the end of Day 1 dedicated to brands, UN agencies and civil actors coming online and sharing their partnership aims, goals and efforts underway.
SDG 17 is obviously the most pertinent to us at Connective Impact, given our work on effective partnership building to solve the world’s most pressing problems. And as it is happens, we’ve spent the last few weeks talking to nearly 40 companies about their partnerships to advance SDG commitments. We’ll share results during our webinar this week "Finding the Right Partner to Effectively Deliver Your Sustainable Development Goals", as well as the research we are working on for later this month.
The timing could clearly be no better than now. Our planet needs us. And what’s more, our people need us. Change is indeed afoot and based on what I’ve seen among the leaders of our future, of our businesses, of those I heard from today, and of those working in international development more broadly, change is absolutely possible.