Now, as the UN Global Compact marks 20 years of uniting business for a better world . . . the challenges we face are as great as any in the history of the United Nations. Upholding the core promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — to leave no one behind — has never been more urgent.

  • António Guterres - United Nations - Secretary-General
From its inception, the United Nations has embodied a vision of international cooperation among Governments and peoples to build a more peaceful and prosperous world for all.   The business community, too, must answer that call. It is for this reason the United Nations  Global Compact was created at the turn of the millennium to guide and inspire companies everywhere to join in tackling humanity’s most pressing challenges. 
Now, as the UN Global Compact marks 20 years of uniting business for a better world — having grown from 44 business participants to more than 10,000 companies, 3,000 non-business signatories and 68 Local Networks — the  challenges we face are as great as any in the  history of the United Nations. The COVID-19  pandemic, with its twin health and socio-economic  crises, has swiftly and dramatically upended lives and livelihoods in nearly every corner of the globe. It has exposed global fragilities and laid bare the rampant inequalities that were already making life difficult for the most vulnerable. Upholding the core promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — to leave no one behind — has never been more urgent. 
The UN system is fully mobilized to save lives  and ease suffering. Moreover, we know that recovery must not aim to simply go back to old ways and business-as-usual. We must work as an international community to build more sustainable and inclusive societies to withstand future shocks. The Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact in the areas of human rights, labour, environment  and anti-corruption continue to show their immense value. Over its 20-year history, the Compact has guided companies of all sizes and from all regions to embed a principles-based approach to doing business. It has also brought the voice of responsible business into global agenda-setting discussions, including on the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris  Agreement on Climate Change.
The Compact has pioneered standards and guidance through the Science Based Targets initiative, the Business Ambition for 1.5°C  campaign, the Women’s Empowerment Principles, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It has developed a set of Principles for Responsible Investment, which has more than 2,300 signatories, as well as a body of Principles for Responsible Management Education designed to equip tomorrow’s responsible business leaders with sustainability acumen and awareness. And the Compact’s Local Networks have built up a strong presence to advance public-private dialogue and action. Where once "do no harm" was a common approach for the global business community, today we are arriving at a new  landscape of elevated expectations and  responsibilities.

At this pivotal moment, there is great scope for the United Nations and the business community  to do even more as partners for a brighter future.  By bringing together the universality of the United Nations, the formidable capacities of the private sector and our common global reach, we can help the vulnerable, rescue the planet and promote stability and shared progress. We do not yet know how we will find our way out of today’s crisis, but with determination, big ideas,  unity and hope, we can recover better and  build a more resilient world.

With less than 4,000 days remaining until the 2030 target, we must step up and turn commitment into action. The time is now to raise SDG Ambition for people, planet and prosperity and create a new normal.

  • Lise Kingo - CEO & Executive Director, United Nations Global Compact
Twenty years ago, the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had the vision and foresight to initiate a global compact of shared values and principles between the United Nations and business to  give the global market a human face. If we fail  to make globalization work for all, he cautioned,  it will work for none. 
This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary  of the United Nations Global Compact in the shadow of COVID-19, with the words of Kofi Annan ringing in our ears. We do so with the understanding that the human community is completely interconnected and interdependent. That without solidarity, especially with those  most vulnerable among us, we all lose. 

Now is the time to get it right and the UN Global Compact is ready to take on the challenge. What started out as a bold vision together with 44 pioneering companies has today grown to become the world’s largest sustainable business initiative. With 68 Local Networks, more than 10,000 businesses headquartered in 160 countries, representing more than 70 million employees worldwide, we have become a global movement of businesses and stakeholders united to create the world we want. Guided by our Ten Principles, and with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement as our lighthouse, the UN Global Compact is here to lead the largest- ever business model transformation towards a new normal.  

Together with DNV, we have taken the  opportunity to take stock of the first 20 years of progress to lay the foundation for the next ten. Some things stand out:
Since the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable  Development was adopted, we have seen  sustainability turn into a strategic business agenda anchored with the CEO. Today the vast majority of businesses have policies covering  all Ten Principles, and are taking action towards the SDGs. 
But policies alone make little difference when goal setting and ambition are not ambitious enough to deliver the impact at the scale that we need, across all of the SGDs. The good news is that CEOs know that they and their peers need to ramp up ambition and they recognize the SDGs as crucial for the future of their businesses. 

What is also clear is that the Ten Principles and the SDGs are not yet deeply enough integrated into the corporate purpose, governance and strategy of the majority of businesses. Therefore they are not sufficiently visible in decision- making and action. 
While businesses widely recognize their positive  contributions to the SDGs, their negative impacts  are significantly under-recognized. This partly stems from the fact that only a minority of  companies apply the Ten Principles to assess and  address their risks and impacts. This is particularly true for the social dimensions — human rights and labour, where only a fraction of companies use the Ten Principles to drive change in their global supply chain. The lack of impact assessments against the Ten Principles and the SDGs, not least in the supply chain, may explain why the SDGs that address poverty, hunger and reduced inequalities are glaring by their omission. 

This is important to take note of, because COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of a global market that has allowed social inequalities to widen for two-thirds of the global population. With half the world’s population employed in the informal sector without any social protection, 1.6 billion people are presently facing the risk of seeing their livelihoods disappear and close to 50 million people are being thrown back into extreme poverty. Business leaders of the future need to understand that the key to stable markets is social equality.  With many other crises looming large, from climate change, biodiversity loss and the erosion of planetary resources, let’s use COVID-19 as our wake-up call to put the world on track to create the world we all want. 

Most importantly, we need the most senior leaders — CEOs, their executive teams and the boards — to use their power to become activists for social change. My message to you is: don’t underestimate the power of your own example. Your voice. Your organizational footprint in the world. You have the power to bolster the resolve of policy makers to prioritize sustainable  development. Leadership is about having the courage to be the change. Indeed to insist  on change.  In the Decade of Action — let’s put people first!

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