This issue is in line with the theme of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s encyclical published the same year, as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change. All three initiatives appeal to all actors in the political, social and business worlds to contribute, through their actions, to the cause of sustainability. An obvious question arises: can companies contribute to the SDGs? The question itself is not quite right: companies can, indeed, contribute. But do they want to? And if they want to, how? Thus, the question is not whether they can contribute but to what extent they have the will and commitment to do so.
It appears that the debate about the private sector’s participation in responding to the challenges of today’s world has started to supersede the ubiquitous and tedious discussion of whether or not this question is appropriate. It has been argued – and rightly so – that the private sector should not, in principle, invade the powers and responsibilities of states. Other, more critical voices from the business world have argued that companies should not bear any responsibility for issues that are totally unrelated to what they consider to be their main raison d’être: economic profit.
However, it seems increasingly clear in the context of globalisation that all actors – including companies – must rise to the global challenges that humanity now faces. Companies are therefore called upon to assume an increasingly important role in solving problems related to the living conditions and, in many cases, the day-to-day suffering of a large part of the world’s population. Due to their growing economic, social and political power, companies are increasingly viewed as responsible for series of duties that cannot be reduced to the effective economic and financial management of their assets. In the global era, governance on issues that affect the global population is not confined to the actions of a single actor (states). Instead, for better or for worse, it will involve other actors who, with different responsibilities and areas of influence, can contribute through their actions to configuring a different sort of future for a large majority of the population.
Companies, therefore, can play a critical role in global economic, social and environmental development. The SDGs are an excellent opportunity to address these challenges, since they raise questions ranging from responsible consumption and the circular economy to health, well-being and innovation. If the SDGs are achieved, they have the potential to spur higher-quality growth that is better grounded in environmental and social matters.
In a frankly difficult context encompassing various kinds of crises, corporate contributions to the SDGs should not only entail the assumption of CSR; they should advocate the gradual consolidation to this approach as a benchmark for companies, not only from a management viewpoint but also in terms of the expectations of society and the markets. In this new framework, a company can generate new ways of interacting with society without ceasing to be a business concern. When it comes to CSR, we are not asking companies to keep being companies while also acting like governments and NGOs. Rather, we are asking them to keep being companies – more and better companies – in a way that is in keeping with the times. This is not impossible. All studies agree on two things: that society’s expectations towards companies are shifting in this direction; and that new professionals are placing more and more value on these factors when deciding whether to be associated with and commit to a particular business project. Moreover, to the extent that this challenge has to do with transforming business culture, and to the extent that it does not affect individual companies, it is also important for members of the Catalan business community to put the SDGs on our corporate agendas, at least when it comes to CSR.
In any case, corporate involvement in the SDGs will increasingly be viewed as a basic pillar of CSR policy… or simply of business strategy. Thus, the issue raised at the start of this article is even more current and urgent than ever.