BUSINESS
12/04/2015 05:18 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2016

Do More Good, Do Less Harm: The Role of Business in Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

Do you think the world will be a better place this tomorrow? What about next year? What about in 15 years?

The answer is: Yes, it can, but not with business as usual according to Michael Green in his TED talk How We Can Make the World a Better Place by 2030. In this data-driven talk he explains how we need to make changes to the way governments, businesses, nonprofits, and even individuals operate.

He argues that achieving the audacious United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is possible, but only if we start looking at root cause issues. As an example, instead of trying to get people out of poverty, we need to change the systems that allow poverty in the first place.

In contrast to Michael's data-driven approach, Anand Giridharada's related talk at this year's Aspen Institute's Action Forum used personal anecdotes to take a critical look doing less bad, instead of only talking about doing more good. The video of his talk, titled The Thriving World, The Wilting World, and You, is a must-watch.

As it relates to business, both of these talks highlight that if a company is doing harm to the earth in its operations, no amount of doing good can make up for its malpractices in a way that will actually help us reach the sustainable development goals.

Doing Actual Harm While Trying to Talk About Doing Good

As an example of a company still doing harm while trying to do some good, H&M attempts to laud its own sustainability efforts, but it does so while producing over 600 million pieces worth of "fast fashion" manufactured in plants with skeptical safety standards and paying less-than-livable wages to over 850,000 people on earth. Less than .2% of its clothing is recycled and only 13.7% of it uses organic cotton. As Linda Greer, director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council shared: "Fundamentally, there is a disconnect between the idea that you are selling a tremendous amount of clothing in fast fashion and that you are trying to be a sustainable company".

Shannon Whitehead of Factory 45 critiques H&M more accurately "there is no amount of 'Conscious Collections' that can make up for the human rights and environmental damage already done.

In other words, hurting the environment and people during production of products and then trying to make up for that with sustainability reports and green campaigns is not solving the root cause issue.

However, if a company instead sources products along a sustainable supply chain and treats employees fairly then it can it do less harm. And since markets reward corporate responsibility, they are still able to give to important long-term environment and social initiatives. Patagonia is a company that doesn't want you to buy new clothes unless you really need them, has rigorous sustainability standards, and continues to give money to social and environmental causes.

This is precisely what Michael and Anand are trying to get across in their previously mentioned talks: We have to build better systems that reward responsible behavior at all levels, do less harm, and still enable us to do more good.

In a passionate talk, famed philosopher Slavoj Zizek talked about this idea years ago, and you should watch his talk to learn about what he calls "cultural capitalism": The notion that when you buy something that is bad for the environment, you can be absolved of your responsibilities because the company makes you think you are also doing good in the process. One example of this is Tom's Shoes, which doesn"t actually help anybody, and in fact, it creates dependencies, erodes dignity, and hurts local employment - all while driving excess sales of products that also create a negative environmental impact.

But, before you think this article is building a case for a radical overthrow of corporations, to quote Slavoj, "let's not discard the evil, let's make the evil work for the good". In fact, many companies are already really good at doing more good. So here are some thoughts about how we can just do less harm.

Bright Spots: Some Companies Are Already Thinking This Way

When I attended the Corporate Citizenship Conference sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Fall 2015, it was refreshing to see that many were already modeling this very idea. The conference's theme was "Connect the Dots: How businesses solve global challenges locally" and speakers explored how companies can integrate corporate social responsibility initiatives throughout all layers of the company and across every business unit.

"Corporate citizenship is not about giving more money and more product, it is about transforming businesses to operate responsibly." -- Kathy Pickus, Divisional Vice President, Global Citizenship and Policy, Abbott

Throughout the conferences, corporate social responsibility professionals highlighted that while they are able to do more good through donations and skills-based volunteering, they are increasingly working with their business units to do less harm, including things like:

Indeed, most business leaders believe that sustainability issues can provide short and long-term bottom line benefits, including innovation, market development, marketing, and employee engagement and retention, and there is a plethora of research highlighting how businesses benefit by being socially responsible.

There are at least 7 research-backed reasons as to why companies should be more sustainable, and as quoted above, there is real evidence that doing so has a material and positive benefit to the bottom line. Deloitte just released new research explaining that "social impact has evolved from a pure PR play to an important part of corporate strategy to protect and create value."

According to Business Fights Poverty, "Given the ambition of the SDGs, and the essential role that business must play with others in achieving them we must take stock and reflect deeply on what it will take to get there, and we must do that together." To help, Business Fights Poverty has released a report and kit to help all businesses: Business and the Sustainable Development Goals: Building Blocks for Success at Scale.

In summary, to return to one of my favorite panelists during the previously mentioned Corporate Citizenship Conference, Kathy Pickus said that "If we keep trying the same models, we're going to get the same results. Who better than the business community to take some risks."