The below MDG 2014 Progress Chart shows where goals were met, where progress – albeit insufficient – was made, and where no progress was made (or, even worse, where ground was lost). A lot has been accomplished over the past 14 years.
Naturally, 2015 is a timely year in which to establish the UN’s new goals for the next 15 years. While the proposed SDGs encompass the eight goals identified by the MDGs, they go even further, with nine additional goals adding more specificity (e.g. climate change, sustainable consumption) as well as new areas of focus (e.g. resiliency, innovation, inclusive societies). These additional goals indicate the wider breadth of issues now warranting the attention of the UN, and they must be part of a holistic solution.
The landscape has changed over the past 15 years. In 2000, as Gap Inc.’s Environmental Manager, I experienced first hand that even the most progressive companies’ efforts on environmental issues were largely limited to discrete initiatives at facilities they owned and operated (e.g. waste reduction, energy efficiencies) or possibly select issues in their supply chains (e.g. wastewater in denim factories). I’d like to note that many apparel brands did have Supplier Codes of Conduct in place that focused on labor conditions. Most other industries were not doing much of anything across these topics.
Since then, select certification schemes (e.g. organic, Good Agricultural Practices) have been expanded to include Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and others, many of which made progress on a small scale. Multi-stakeholder initiatives and agriculture roundtables (e.g. BCI, Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil) have also provided an alternative to the traditional certification schemes.
Today, sustainability and human rights are addressed by most global brands, with dedicated personnel or departments; brands and non-governmental organizations work together towards solutions; consumer awareness and feedback have risen to meaningful measures, and efforts to address entire supply chains have begun to take shape.
However, enormous challenges remain. The vast majority of companies comprising our global economy are operated in an unsustainable manner, and many activities are harmful to the environment, communities, and workers. Certification and traceability solutions have not been brought to the necessary scale, and empowerment and capacity building have not received enough attention.
If we are going to succeed in global efforts to shift the business practices of all of the members of this worldwide economy into more socially responsible and sustainable actions (e.g. treat workers with dignity, enrich communities, protect the environment, and contribute to the economic betterment of those most in need), we must strengthen codes, audits, and traceability models by allocating resources towards efforts that can spread throughout the global economy and lead to the changes we hope to achieve. I propose we give more attention the following three areas:
- Empower the supply chain. The supply chain is the engine that drives our global economies. What I mean by this is that supply chains often make the biggest impacts and, as such, they must be part of the solution. Many actors along the supply chain are willing to make the changes expected of them – and in turn strengthen their long-term outlook – if what is required of them is well articulated, adds business value, and is within their sphere of influence and financial tolerance. We, the community designing and developing solutions, should engage the supply chain actors in a sincere and informative manner. We should also develop and make available helpful resources and any support needed to make necessary improvements and change, and we must clearly articulate expectations and standards. Of course, the end buyers must also be engaged if we are to integrate these expectations into the purchasing criteria.
- Promote transparency over traceability. We have seen tremendous focus on where products and material come from, and under what conditions. This focus is helpful and provides some select brands and consumers with a desired level of information (e.g. certified product). However, I would argue that not all consumers are committed to certified products, and that this level of specificity comes at a cost – the most serious cost of limited scale (and, thus, impact). Transparency into less detailed information can still be helpful to brands to mitigate their risks as well as provide credible messages of responsible sourcing practices. For example, critics and consumers alike may find the knowledge that a supplier has met a level of standard on the issues most relevant to their operations, and in how they operate their overall business, very compelling. Improvements in transparency also strengthen trust between suppliers and buyers, creating additional business benefits.
- Focus on desired impacts. I value the importance of the consumer and end buyer in creating demand for positive change. However, I fear the consumer side has distracted us from what should remain our focus – making positive impacts at the other end of the supply chain (e.g. farm or processor). We should not measure our progress by how many certified products are sold, but by how many farmers, miners or workers have better working conditions or a brighter future, and how many natural resources we have conserved or preserved. We need information on and evidence of what is effective and what may be improved upon if we are going to create a new, sustainable, and equitable economy.