Caroline Ashley

Caroline focuses on how innovative economic models can deliver more inclusive and resilient development.

Caroline has worked on markets, business models and investment approaches that deliver social impact for many years in roles with challenge funds, impact investors, entrepreneurs, corporates, NGOs and policy makers. As Results Director of the DFID Business Innovation Facility, and Sida Innovations Against Poverty programme, she founded the Practitioner Hub for Inclusive Business in 2010, then took on hosting it, and acted as Editor of the Hub for 7 years before it transitioned into managed by IBAN.

Most recently Caroline led economic justice programmes at Oxfam GB, before moving to Forum for the Future, to lead global systems change programmes to accelerate our transition to a sustainable future.

Inclusive business and SDGs: a time for yawning, relabeling or raising ambition?

Could we find anyone to write a sceptical viewpoint on the SDGs and their relevance for business? No. Do we know people who are sceptical? Of course. Has anyone convinced us that business needs to take the SDGs seriously? Well actually yes.

I confess, I am a bit bored of conversations that go like this: The UN and Governments have agreed 17 SDGs to structure global priorities until 2030. Business needs to map its inclusive business commitments and sustainability commitments against the SDGs so as to win recognition from governments. If that’s all there was too it, we barely need one blog, let alone a set, let alone a growing range of research advice and tools.

But when Marcos Neto, from UNDP Private Sector and Foundations team, stood up in a Manila conference room a few weeks ago to counter the sceptical moans about the huge raft of goals and indicators, I began to see his point: after a brief tour of the humanities’ problems, he concluded ‘if ALL we need to do to put the planet back on a sound footing is to achieve 17 ambitious goals and 169 targets by 2030, then we are in a better position than we were before and you all need to join that effort.’ There is no guarantee that leaders will deliver on either the climate agreement in Paris or the SDGs agreed at the UN. But the point is that the SDGs are ambitious, and if globally ‘we succeed’, it will be through progress on the SDGs. So any business that wants to be ambitious and be part of the solution, needs to get in sync.

Although 17 SDGs are so comprehensive that they can be seen as ‘anything goes’, they mark a departure from the Millennium Development Goals. Firstly, every country becomes a developing country, because none have achieved them all. The mind-set is global. Secondly, development and environmental sustainability are seriously integrated at last. Thirdly business is explicitly recognised as part of the solution this time around.

Several of our blog posts this month highlight the strategic opportunities and benefits to business created by the SDGs. Richard Hardyment (Corporate Citizenship), Fernando Lopes (IADB), Mark Ingram (B4D), Serena Brown (KPMG), Rebeca Pratley (PwC) all put it slightly differently. But the message is clear: SDGs are not just a way of relabeling good deeds. They will affect country plans, resource allocation, partnerships and what counts as leading practice. So don’t just relabel, but exploit the opportunity.

We also have a host of blogs describing how specific SDGs (such as gender equality, or integrated coastal management) are being tackled by business, and how specific businesses (such as SABMiller or SMEs within the IB Accelerator) have inclusive business models that help deliver the SDGs. I am naturally cautious of these: has the IB model changed, or is it just the story telling that has changed? I think it is the example from Novozymes that best convinces me that it goes beyond a change in storytelling. I am fascinated by the fact that Novozymes are using the SDG as a lens in their internal prioritisation process.

You might get the impression, from our mini-series, or from any other googling on business and the SDGs, that it’s a hubbub of conversation and activity out there. But actually, Richard Hardyment gives us an important reality check. Yes, I can find fascinating material on what Unilever, Ericcson, GSK and Anglo-American are doing; and plentiful PwC and KPMG surveys tell me business awareness of SDGs is fairly high (higher than citizens’ awareness). But Richard Hardyment points out that the vast majority of global businesses are so far silent. This conversation on business contribution to the SDGs is familiar to those who are inside it, alien to many others still.

Let's put this in the bigger context of where inclusive business is now. Amongst practitioners, it's bedding in. It's tough, but there are examples working and scaling, with ecosystem structures evolving. But it's still a minority sport, particularly for large companies. Robert de Jongh (Deloitte) shared an interesting presentation at the Asia IB Forum on IB and SDGs, mapping 4 types of company: although only 11% are pure profit maximisers, half are labelled as 'corporate contributors' and a third as 'impact integrators'. It's that third that have considerable potential and may yet grow.

If businesses are being a tad slow to announce their new ambitions to deliver SDGs, consultants and business support organisation have been faster to develop the new tools they might need. I recommend the blog by my colleague Anne Salter, giving you a quick run down of just some of the tools that already exist to help business think through the SDGs.

Perhaps we posed a red herring of a question this month: is business relevant to the SDGs? Of course it is. The whole point of inclusive business is to tackle social problems through viable and scalable models, so IB is the part of business practice that is more relevant to the SDGs than any other. Are the SDGs relevant to inclusive business? Of course they are, even if you see them only as a way to relabel what IB is, and make the case to a wider audience of its social value.

Perhaps the more interesting question is ‘how relevant’ are the SDGs to IB, and how much more powerful can inclusive business be to deliver them? The things I will be watching to learn those answer are:

  • When SDGs plans are made at country level, how engaged will companies be? How open with governments be to engaging them - we see mixed government practice so far.
  • Will results measurement by governments actually evolve to focus on achievement of SDGs and include the contribution of business? If so, will this create strong incentives for business action and evidence?
  • Will businesses simply add an SDG stamp to their ongoing IB, or will the SDGs influence their level of ambition?
  • Will the partnerships needed to deliver SDGs create the next step change in inclusive business partnering, not only business-government and business-NGO, but also pre-competitive B2B partnerships?
  • Will business that do not talk the talk of IB or shared value be influenced by the SDGs to shift their business model?