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The case for sustainable business

First published in 2013 this article remains relevant today. in 2013 Matthew Tukaki was the first elected Board member of the United Nations Global Compact, the business and industry side of the UN System. He remains the first Maori elected and at the time also served as the Australian Representative to the UNGC. First published at

In an increasingly fragile world, business and industry must play a role in finding solutions to the biggest challenges our planet and our society faces. The crucial need for sustainable development calls for shared responsibility and a commitment to working towards a common narrative.

On the cusp of the new millennium former Secretary General Kofi Annan took a message to the Davos World Economic Forum where he called on business and industry to embrace, support and enact a set of core values in the areas of human rights, labour standards and environmental practices. It was a call to arms by the Secretary General and recognition that business should and must play a role in a world that is increasingly fragile, in various states of social and economic development, states of conflict of war, differences of opinion and intolerance. The United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) was born.

Today, under our chief architect, Georg Kell, we have grown to more than 10,000 signatories across 145 countries that make up our planets largest corporations, industry groups, union movements, micro enterprises and financial institutions (see article page 8). By 2020 we aim to have more than 20,000 businesses of all sizes and from all geographies involved. It is our planet’s single largest corporate citizenship initiative. At our heart sit four fundamental and universal principles whereby business must communicate their progress on each annually – human rights, anti-corruption, the environment and labour.

Twenty-five years ago former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland, who later became the Director General of the World Health Organisation, presided over the World Commission on Environment and Development. In 1987 a report, widely known as the Brundtland Report was published and entitled Our Common Future. The Commission was one of the key driving factors for the establishment of the first Earth Summit in 1992 and what is known as Agenda 21. The first Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro and for the first time the linkages between social, economic and environmental development were drawn.

In many ways you cannot alleviate poverty unless you are also able to grow an economy and create jobs, you cannot address issues dealing with the environment and social justice unless you first empower the people not to be subservient but to be independent. In order to achieve a sustainable future you must establish the necessary governance structures to support people and an economy as they move from poverty to empowerment. In many ways you cannot achieve a lasting peace unless we properly and consistently address the fundamental societal issues that lie at the very core of many conflicts around the world.

Beyond Rio+20

In June 2012, 25 years after the first Earth Summit, the world came together in Rio with a focus on sustainable development. This time the linkages between social, economic and environmental development were much clearer. In a report entitled Resilient People, Resilient Planet co-authors Jacob Zuma and Tarja Halonen made it clear that in order to achieve a sustainable world and a future we all want, that any recommendation and flow on from Rio+20 would require commitment and action from citizens across all sectors of society from heads of state and government and local mayors to business executives, scientists, religious leaders, civil society activists and not least, the leaders of the next generation, today’s youth.

In the post-global financial crisis world a lot of work needs to be done to rebuild the economies of nations states and regions. There is a general view that Rio+20 was not a success, but I can tell you that is far from the truth. One of the key differences between the first Earth Summit in 1992 and Rio+20 in June of this year is the increasing role business and industry can and must play when it comes to some of the biggest challenges our planet faces – whether it is climate change, food and water security, population, education, health, poverty alleviation and the empowerment and independence of women, girls and indigenous people.

As an equal partner at the table, business and industry have, over these last 25 years, accepted more of the responsibility and accountability that participation brings. It used to be the case that civil society organisations and non-government operators were the main balancing actors in the debate and discussion. This is no longer the case. Rio+20 highlighted the fundamental and specific recognition that each of us play an important and equal role as symbiotic links in a chain, just as there are links between the three pillars of social, economic and environmental development.

Good business means a social license to operate

Whether we operate here at home or a developing country abroad, the very need to build and manage the business case for our social license to operate is fundamental. Governments demand it, communities require it, our shareholders want it, our employees want to live it and as a CEO, Chairman and Director of any number of Boards I want to ensure we deliver it.

Put simply a social license to operate is where we engage with the local community to ensure that while there are obvious commercial imperatives that we provide the very social and economic support programmes such as jobs, education and health, that will in themselves assist local communities grow.

Good business is not about a win for the company and a loss for the community – it must be a win-win for both, a partnership of equity and equality. As the United Nations said on the 2012 International Day of Peace, where the theme is sustainable peace for a sustainable future, “there can be no sustainable future without a sustainable peace. Sustainable peace must be built on sustainable development”. This is the cornerstone role business and industry can and must play, in partnership with others, to bring about that which we all want most.

Business and industry are and must be an owner and first responder when it comes to human rights both at home and abroad. Whether it be our supply chains in developing countries, the treatment of our employees or the very real influence we can bring to bear on nation states to improve their own behaviour, our business therefore must not only be about human rights. It is also about respect for the environment, ensuring we fight against corruption in all of its forms and provide assistance and support to some of the most vulnerable in our communities, because for in order to have a sustainable business we must execute our social licences to operate.

This is what the UNGC is all about. As the American actor Nick Nolte once said “peace is an inside job”. Our inside job is to get on with the job by aligning social, economic and environmental development towards the new Sustainable Development Goals that will ultimately replace the Millennium Development Goals in the coming years. Business and industry have not traditionally been owners when it comes to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but that will all change in the post-MDG world where we will not only become contributors, but owners. And, we are already responding.

Shared responsibility

I want today to be the starting point of a new call to arms where we work together, not in a piecemeal fashion, but with equal respect for our positions, philosophical approaches and ideologies because as I have learnt over a long period time we can in fact reach our common goal through the identification of our single common purpose.

We are all influencers of positive change and can in our own right use that influence for better outcomes for us all. So how do we reach a sustainable peace? One path is through sustainable development with all of us sharing responsibility and working towards our common narrative. I could probably quote any number of well-known people and leaders such as Desmond Tutu who once said “each one of us can be an oasis of peace” or Nelson Mandela who said that “peace is the greatest weapon for development that any people can have.”

I prefer to quote my own father who taught me the greatest lesson in life. He was a proud Maori and instilled, with my mother Margaret, not just values but a simple philosophy. In Maori, my father Middy gave me the following for my own life’s journey:

He aha te mea nui o te ao?

(What is the most important thing in the world?)

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

(It is the people, it is the people, it is the people)

I draw no distinction between your or my ability to make a change and to make a difference. I don’t care if you are black or white, man or woman, young or old, Christian or Muslim, you speak differently to me or not. At the end of the day if we recognise that all people are important then we can and will reach a sustainable peace.

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