Sustainable businesses for a sustainable world
THE ratification of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that will be the world's roadmap for development over the next 15 years is an important achievement in itself. The years of negotiations that it took to produce the 15,000 words and 69 development targets that constitute "The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development" -- the document that underpins the SDGs -- have culminated into a global consensus. But now comes the hard part.
The general success of the MDGs has led to some ambitious targets in this round of the development agenda. Indeed, achieving some, such as the goal to ensure "full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities," will be difficult, to say the least.
Our attention must now turn towards the means to attain these goals. There can be no underestimating the enormity of the task we have set for ourselves. To put it in perspective, the international community is set to spend USD 2.5 trillion on development between now and 2030, while according to the UN, realising the SDGs will cost upwards of USD 170 trillion.
Of course, a large percentage of the balance will come from individual national budgets. But another force will play an increasingly important role in the development agenda. Unlike the MDGs, the current global goals have been set with active involvement of businesses and the private sector. In fact, for the first time, the role that businesses are expected to play has been built into the SDGs themselves, with goals targeting full employment, protection of labour rights and sustainable industrialisation.
Businesses are already an important engine of development, accounting for 60 percent of GDP, 80 percent of capital flows and 90 percent of jobs on average in the developing world. With growing recognition of the transformative power of businesses within development circles, the question now becomes whether businesses themselves can fully embrace this potential.
A growing body of evidence suggests that they already are. Over the last few decades, we have seen the evolution of an entirely new breed of business models, ones with far more social impact and far smaller environmental footprints. These 'social' businesses are being spurred by investors who have started seeking not just financial returns, but positive social and environmental impact as well, through what is being referred to as impact investment. To put the scale of impact investment in context, impact funds currently control an estimated USD 50 billion in assets, and before the decade is out, it is expected that this will grow to USD 500 billion.
The point of these social businesses – or social enterprises, whichever term is used – is straightforward and intuitive: the return on investment for a firm is not just the financial return, it includes the social and environmental returns as well. Like costs such as depreciation and amortisation, both positive and negative externalities must be tallied and reflected in the balance sheets and profit and loss statements. The prime motive is not just profit, but also transformation.
That this model can and does work has been proved many times over all across the world. In fact, some of the earliest examples of successful social enterprises can be found right here in Bangladesh.
Take the story of BRAC Dairy, a BRAC social enterprise, for example.
The germs of its inception can be traced back to 1984, when BRAC realised that between 15 to 20 percent of the clients of its Rural Development Programme were investing in livestock. Yet challenges such as poor breeds, extremely limited veterinary services and shortage of fodder were posing serious risks to these investments.
Since then, BRAC's animal husbandry training programme has trained thousands of paravets, and its Artificial Insemination programme has raised average milk production to six to seven litres per day per cow from less than a quarter of that amount. BRAC Dairy has established more than a hundred chilling centres across western Bangladesh, setting up a means for milk produced by small-scale dairy farmers to travel the urban centres, where fair prices for their honest labours could be ensured.
Today, BRAC Dairy collects around 120,000 litres of milk every day from around 54,000 marginal and homestead farmers, and markets its products around the country under its Aarong Dairy brand.
When the SDGs call for doubling "the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers," increasing investment in "rural infrastructure, agricultural research and extension services" or halving per capita global food waste "including post-harvest losses," it calls for addressing the same challenges BRAC Dairy continues to tackle.
Obviously, this is only one way of addressing some of the challenges that lie in front of us. There are other challenges, and other ways of going about it. But the nature and scale of the challenges are such that we simply cannot afford not to utilise all the means available to us.
Fighting poverty, ending hunger, safeguarding the planet, ensuring justice, building global partnerships: these are global challenges, and they require global solutions. Businesses and the private sector can no longer skirt this responsibility. Just as they are a part of the problem, they must also be a part of the solution.
The writer is Director, BRAC Dairy and Food Enterprises.