Corporate sustainability comes of age

Foreword by United Nations Global Compact

George Kell
Executive Director
UN Global Compact

The idea of “a global compact of shared values and principles, which will give a human face to the global market” was first introduced in a speech to business leaders in 1999 by the UN Secretary-General. It was a time of fierce debate around  globalisation, and we hoped that proposing universal principles in the areas of human rights, labour, the environment and, later, anti-corruption would have an impact. We had no idea that one speech would spark a global movement.

Upon our launch in 2000, it was already clear that for a business to be truly sustainable, it would need to change how it operated to ensure responsible practices, take steps to engage positively with society, and then tell their stakeholders and the world what they were doing. These remain the core commitments made by our participating companies today.

Networks of companies at the national level began to emerge quickly. Today, more than 85 Local Networks form the backbone of an extensive international community embedding the Global Compact’s principles and nurturing collaboration across languages, borders and sectors.

During the first years of the Global Compact, we had to learn to walk and talk. We often found ourselves on the defensive, having to explain why the UN was in the business of business and deflect criticism that we lacked teeth. Only once an annual reporting requirement was introduced in 2004, and companies were removed for failure to disclose, did the debate begin to shift.

There have been many milestones since.

With the launch of our sister initiatives, the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), important players aligned to help make a strong case for sustainability.

Under the leadership of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon since 2007, the Global Compact has experienced important growth and gained depth, especially through the launch of issue platforms and principles – including Caring for Climate, the CEO Water Mandate, the Women’s Empowerment Principles, the Children’s Rights and Business Principles and Business for Peace.

In 2012, the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum was a breakthrough – with 3,000 corporate participants and other stakeholders affirming their commitment to sustainability. After Rio, we were able to move from “making the case”, to working with committed companies to unleash innovation and collaboration in support of societal priorities – recognising that everyone, including business, benefits from a better world.

Since Rio, the corporate sustainability movement has continued to take off globally due to three interconnected forces: the power of transparency, an increasing recognition that externalities must be accounted for, and a growing understanding of the opportunities associated with solving problems. Evidence is mounting that companies that focus on material sustainability issues are outperforming the rest.

Now, upon the 15th anniversary of the Global Compact, this report seeks to tell the story of how and why corporate sustainability came of age – and look at what role  the Global Compact has been able to play in moving business in the right direction.  We are deeply appreciative of DNV GL’s expert and comprehensive review of our  work. Our only objective is to learn how we can make faster and more systemic  progress in ensuring that businesses everywhere are committed to sustainability.

We stand at a threshold. Corporate sustainability is changing markets from within and a tipping point is in sight. The challenge is to win over more companies, many more companies. As we head into our next 15 years, the Global Compact is up to the task. We are committed to working with business to produce the changes necessary to bring about a better future for us all – ultimately aiming for an inclusive and sustainable global economy that delivers lasting benefits to people, communities and markets everywhere.

George Kell
Executive Director, UN Global Compact