UK Sustainability; Becoming A World Leader

February 19, 2019

London 19th February 2019

By Chris Southworth, ICC United Kingdom Secretary General 

The UK is well positioned to present itself as a world leader on sustainability when the government is reviewed by the UN on its delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in September this year.

However, to be successful, the UK requires a clear:

  1. joined up strategy across government that includes the departments for development, trade, business and environment, the private sector and NGOs
  2. definition of the sustainable development goals and a plan for how the UK can deliver these successfully
  3. communications plan outlining what the SDGs are, what they mean for consumers and how consumers can contribute to helping the UK achieve its goals
  4. action plan on how business and government can work together to accelerate sustainable finance in the UK

The challenges posed by sustainable development and climate change are some of the most pressing issues of our time. Risks to health, livelihood, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth are top global priorities with development goals now an integral part of our global commitments under the UN SDG framework. The urgency of the task cannot be ignored and it will require a high degree of cooperation between businesses, governments and society to tackle the challenges. This is a truly global challenge with the UK a centre of excellence and expertise. It’s a golden opportunity to capitalise on.

The ICC and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) co-convened a roundtable at WilmerHale in London with representatives from across the business community, the Department for International Development, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and a host of non-governmental organisations, to discuss the UK’s delivery of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The roundtable was part of ICC’s new G20 roundtable series to help raise the profile of major global business priorities, galvanise stakeholders and promote more cooperation.

With green growth an area of clear UK competitive advantage, there is a clear opportunity for a joined-up UK strategy that brings together business, government and NGOs, on par with the likes of Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, all of whom are world leaders in this area with highly effective public-private sector programmes of engagement at the UN. There are a host of opportunities to raise the UK profile at the UN SDG Fair, UN Climate Summit, UN High Level Political Forum, UN General Assembly and COP24 all of which ICC will be present at and an ICC-led UK delegation to the UN in September to act as a showpiece and springboard to ramp up visibility further in 2020.

Fragmentation was a repetitive theme throughout the discussion with lots of excellent industry and government initiatives but too much of it unconnected from other workstreams. The opportunity is to join up the work and ensure the UK has the required visibility and impact to showcase what the UK is doing at the big set piece events - important if we want to influence decision makers.

One challenge is the way in which government has structured itself to deliver the SDGs with different departments leading on their own workstreams and the Department for International Development (DFID) acting as a coordinator. This month saw the first Cabinet meeting to address SDG delivery yet we are nearly half way through the UN programme. It is noticeable that the likes of Sweden and Germany structure themselves differently in how they engage with business.  

Ultimately, DFID is an outward facing and mostly an emerging market, development focused department which doesn’t lend itself at the natural place for companies to connect to. DFID also suffers from a lower national profile unlike other departments. This isn’t necessarily an issue but it does mean we need to work that bit harder to connect the dots and promote visibility.

“Businesses are responsible for a large proportion of emissions and it’s only through innovation and investment from industry that we’ll make the transition to a greener economy”, said Tom Thackray, CBI, “if we move quickly, we can also deliver new markets which will bring prosperity for the UK and business as a whole”. It is vital that businesses take the lead in removing carbon out of company processes, as this will deliver competitive advantages while also supporting the sustainable development goals.

The impact of the UK approach was highlighted by a UN Global Compact survey in 2016 where the UK came last in Europe with only 14% businesses aware of the SDGs. By comparison, this figure was 70+% elsewhere – this situation needs to change if the UK is going to meet its ambitions to be a leader and be a world leader in delivery. The UN review in the autumn is a good opportunity to publicly address the issues and put in place a comprehensive plan for the next vital phase of delivery to 2030 when the current UN SDG programme ends.

All of this becomes more important in a post Brexit context when the UK will need to be more effective in capitalizing on its unique strengths in key areas like renewable energy, advanced manufacturing, development, technology, law and finance to be more competitive outside the EU. All the attributes to be a world leader on the delivery of UN SDGs are here if these attributes are mobilized in a more effective way.

Nick Baird, Centrica, noted “from a business point of view – in a post-Brexit context – the UK needs to find a way to be a powerful global player, and it’s perfectly clear that green growth is one of those areas where the UK has technological and industrial leadership around finance in this space.”

Financing the SDGs

The UN estimates the gap in sustainable financing required to deliver the SDGs at USD 5–7 trillion annually yet there is USD 12 trillion of finance available in the global economy. The issue is not a lack of finance. It is more a lack of awareness, high-quality projects to invest in, weak market incentives and lack of coherent policy. The opportunity is to increase cooperation across the public, private and development sectors and improve the policy framework to unlock the finance. We need to do this if we are going to change mindsets – UK corporates are far less likely to invest in green bonds than their French counterparts.

There is an increasing appetite among corporate community to engage on the issues, particularly those with large supply chains like Diageo. The difference is that the French government used the opportunities to galvanize business and put sustainability and climate change higher up the priority list. France is now the number one market for green bonds. There is nothing stopping the UK doing the same – it is a huge opportunity for the government. There is definitely an appetite to hear from UK industry in the UN but it will take a combined effort from government and industry to set up the opportunities once there.

"Capacity-building is an important part of transitioning to a low carbon global economy. We should look to share our expertise, knowledge and experience in green finance, smart energy and climate governance," said Emily Murrell, Co-Head of the ICC Sustainable Finance Working Group & Head of Sustainable Finance and Future Cities Policy, HSBC, "the organisations around this table should get involved with skill and knowledge sharing, especially in emerging markets".  We have some of the best NGOs, innovators and academics in the world to help us move forward with these goals.

The follow organisations participated in the roundtable discussion: 9 Stone Buildings, Abundance Investment, BAML, Barclays BEIS, Burges Salmon, Business Fights Poverty CBI, CDP, Centrica, Climate Markets & Investment Association, DFID, Debevoise & Plimpton, Diageo, HSBC, Hermes Investment Management, Kings College, NextEnergy Capital, Orsted, Pearson plc., Rockwool, S&P Global, Shell International, The Carbon Trust, UK Finance, UKSSD, UN Global Compact Network UK, WaterAid, WilmerHale

If your company or organisation would like to contribute and get involved please contact

ICC is the world’s largest business organisation representing 45 million companies and 1 billion employees from all sectors and company sizes in over 100 countries. We are the only business organisation with UN Observer Status. ICC United Kingdom is the representative office of ICC in the UK and works with British business groups worldwide to represent the voice of British business at inter-governmental level - the United Nations, G20 and World Trade Organization. For further information, please visit

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