The World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) seeks to generate a movement around increasing the private sector’s impact towards a sustainable future for all through transformative benchmarks that will compare companies’ performance on the SDGs. However, in order to boost companies’ motivation, there needs to be real change in the way that their impact is measured.
Gerbrand Haverkamp, Executive Director at WBA, originally founded Index Initiative and, prior to this, he worked for the Dutch Government in the areas of inclusive business, sustainable agricultural supply chains and food security. We discussed with Gerbrand about the crucial role the private sector has to play in advancing the SDGs.
1.Benchmarks provide an essential tool for comparing corporate performance on the SDGs. How does World Benchmarking Alliance help companies improve their performance?
Benchmarking is a powerful mechanism for driving organisation performance towards the SDGs, as they chart a clearer course for business, providing evidence that informs and enables dialogue, and ultimately action. Corporate benchmarking is well established, so we have learnt from tried and tested methods of how effective they are in meeting targets and spurring collaboration between businesses, governments, NGOs, civil society, and investors to work together and hold each other to account. When we look at action across the SDGs, there usually isn’t a universally agreed method for measuring progress. We see WBA as playing that role – it’s why we benchmark 7 systems of transformation and identify the 2000 companies that have the most influence in contributing to the achievement of the SDGs across those transformations in our SDG2000.
2.The 2030 Agenda requires that we challenge our current thinking. What do you think are the vital steps companies should take to be successful in delivering on the agenda?
Companies need to think about what transformational change they can bring. Crucially, WBA believes change must be holistic. Without integration, we will never achieve truly socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable economies and societies. Every business is different, but each is able to take a systems-based approach and create sustainable, inclusive, and innovative solutions. Businesses managing these deep changes require roadmaps that are rooted in the pathways to sustainable future.
For example, one of our key beliefs is a “Just Transition”, which means not leaving any person or community behind whilst tackling climate change. An area where this approach is crucial, but often forgotten, is in decarbonisation and energy transformation. All too often, organisations are targeting “net zero goals” without addressing social impact, such as human rights considerations and gender discrimination. The climate crisis acutely impacts the most vulnerable, so we must ensure we make a low carbon future accessible to all and not lose sight of the overall objective of a sustainable future for everyone.
3.What are your considerations of how Eastern European companies tackle sustainable business practices, in comparison with Western Europe?
We haven’t done an assessment on how Eastern European companies perform against Western European companies in our benchmark. However, my assumption would be that Eastern European companies on average are slightly on the back foot compared to their Western peers, as they experience less external pressure. Growing expectations from consumers, civil society organisations, employees, investors, or regulators for most companies create the initial pressure they need to start their sustainability journey. Traditionally, these growing expectations have mainly focused on well-known, often Western brands. But this will change and societal expectations towards Eastern-European countries will keep growing.
4.Which are the standards or methodologies you recommend to companies who are working on improving their sustainability performance and reporting?
Through WBA’s work, we aim to engage with the companies we benchmark to help inspire deep change. Having benchmarked a wide range of sectors across issues including decarbonisation and energy transformation, gender discrimination, human rights and digital inclusion, one thing we see time and again is the need for companies to be more explicit about how their actions impact people and the environment.
We are working closely with business leaders and other stakeholders to push for greater disclosure and transparency. This approach is not about pointing fingers at laggards and putting leaders on a pedestal, it’s about having a better understanding of the true scale of the issues at hand. Only then can companies, with the support and guidance of third parties, enact change that delivers a real and meaningful difference.
WBA is part of the Impact Management Project structured network, this also includes organisations like GRI, SASB, CDP, B-Lab, and the GIIN, all these organisations provide credible guidance to companies.
5.Are businesses learning the lessons relating to environmental degradation in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic?
There is no doubt, the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most severe health, economic and social crises of our time. It has exacerbated inequalities and highlighted the need for greater long-term resilience. With national lockdowns forcing people to stay inside for long periods of time, I think there’s also a new appreciation for the value of the outdoors and nature for physical and mental wellbeing, but at the same time, biodiversity loss is on an all-time high. This is why we are working with the Global Commons Alliance on fostering greater accountability on the impact companies have on nature.
However, I am also mindful that there’s been a huge human cost to the pandemic. For example, through our Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, we assessed the private sector’s response to the pandemic. Our “COVID-19 and Human Rights” study revealed that most companies failed to demonstrate that they had managed to limit the negative impact on stakeholders, especially in their supply chains, and to ensure that their rights were respected. On a positive note, the few companies that already had a robust human rights due diligence process in place demonstrated that they were better equipped to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
The interview was initially published in November 2021, in the bilingual yearbook Community Index Magazine no. 3, printed edition. It can be ordered here: https://communityindex.ro/community-index-magazine-2021/