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Taking action on the SDGs: Lessons from Sembcorp Industries

Thomas Milburn

Last week, on 27th April 2018, Corporate Citizenship Singapore held our latest Knowledge Series  breakfast briefing event to discuss the current state of corporate action on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With around 30 practitioners from various companies and backgrounds, we were joined by special guest Gwendolyn Loh, Senior Manager, Strategic Communications & Sustainability at Sembcorp Industries (Sembcorp), sharing their story on how the company has approached the SDGs.

Corporate Citizenship set the scene  with insights from our annual survey on corporate action on the SDGs. Despite the hype at numerous conferences and business events talking about the SDGs, our research found only a modest increase in the number of companies globally reporting that they are actively looking at the implications of the SDGs for their business – from 40% of respondents in 2015 to 46% in 2017.

Looking at regional action on SDGs, our research showed that only 10 of the 50 top listed companies in Singapore have publicly declared support for the SDGs. This is compared to 68% of the FTSE100 in the UK and 38% of the Fortune50 in the US. Part of this stalled business response could be down to a common sentiment that was shared by practitioners in the room, who expressed frustration with trying to make the SDGs meaningful while being inundated with so many frameworks.

However, considering that the SDGs have been adopted by 193 countries, it is not just another framework. This is a universal roadmap that the public sector, private sector and civil society can all align on and use the same language to drive collaboration and change. Furthermore, this list of global needs represents a giant opportunity for business. One which the Business and Sustainable Development Commission has estimated at US$12 trillion in market opportunities for business in just four industry sectors included in their report.

Nevertheless, a lot of companies are understandably struggling with where to start when it comes to the SDGs. Sembcorp have a refreshing story to tell. It shows how a Singaporean business with global operations is taking practical steps to address the SDGs. Gwen, who presented Sembcorp’s approach, has been part of the sustainability function at the company for 6 years and has spent a large part of that time dealing with exactly the struggles mentioned above. She admitted that when she took a first look at the SDGs she let out a bit of a sigh, anticipating the extra work required. But since then, Sembcorp has taken a thoughtful approach looking at what the SDGs mean for the company. The result is presented in its latest Environmental, Social and Governance Review.

Gwendolyn Loh speaking at Corporate Citizenship’s Knowledge Series on the SDGs.

The approach Sembcorp took was very similar to the first two steps in Corporate Citizenship’s TAME (Think, Act, Measure, Engage) model that was first set out in our 2015 paper on the SDGs.

1. Think:
To better understand what the SDGs meant for the company, Sembcorp began by mapping 17 Goals against its material sustainability issues to understand the alignment with its current priorities. It also looked at both the potential positive and negative impacts it might have on the SDGs across its entire value chain. While fairly high level, this exercise helped the company to identify both risks and opportunities to have an impact on the SDGs and how these related to their own ability to create and sustain value.

Sembcorp then looked externally and conducted a benchmarking exercise to understand what the leaders within relevant industry sectors globally were doing on the SDGs. This provided the company with practical examples to engage management and colleagues internally, as well as helped it to think about what opportunities would be most relevant for its unique business context.

2. Act:
The next step for the company was to translate this understanding into concrete plans and action. For Sembcorp, the timing for this was right. The company was able to connect Goal 7 on affordable and clean energy – which had been prioritised as key for the business through the process mentioned previously – with an internal discussion on how the business is preparing for the global transition towards a low-carbon economy. This alignment provided the platform for greater engagement and buy-in across the business, including from the Group President & CEO.

Alongside its latest annual report, the company has now launched its Climate Change Strategy. In addition to addressing Goal 7, the strategy contains specific targets to reduce the carbon emission intensity of its energy business by close to 25% from its current 0.55 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per megawatt hour (tCO2 e/MWh) to 0.42 tCO2 e/MWh by 2022 and to less than 0.40 tCO2 e/MWh by 2030.

Gwen was careful to state that this is still very much an ongoing journey for the company and there is still a lot to do, from continuing to increase awareness of the SDGs internally and identifying innovative solutions to some of the trickier challenges. The foundations have been set though.

For other companies looking to get started, each will need to think about what makes most sense for them.  Looking at a single programme or product may be more feasible than looking at the whole business for some as a starting point. Wherever you are able to start, it seems that a winning formula is to build momentum through practical actions, large or small, that align business interest with the agenda set out by the SDGs.

 

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