What relevance do the Sustainable Development Goals SDG have for companies?
Grafhorst: The classification of the SDG is not easy for companies, because at first glance they have little to do with the core business. At first too, we were struggling. For one, of course, no one can object to fighting poverty. On the other hand, it was a great challenge to break down the topics of the SDG to your own company and to build the bridge from the big frame to the concrete contribution. We did quite well this year by collecting for our sustainability report how individual Greiner activities contribute to the larger framework. In this way, it can be shown which SDG contribution a company can make. The packaging industry, for example, is particularly under the obligation here in view of the littering of the oceans.
Stettner: At Andritz Hydro, we have had similar experiences: on the abstract level, we were relatively incapable of doing much with the SDG. However, a closer look reveals that there are a variety of intersections with areas in which we have been active for a long time. In hydropower equipment, this is affordable and clean energy, in our pump business, clean water and sanitation. So far, we have not yet included the SDGs in sustainability reporting, but I hear this will happen next year. I can only confirm what has just been said: This linking and bringing the SDG into the entrepreneurial reality is not trivial, but quite a challenge. You have to identify your strengths and weaknesses, set priorities and - this is the key issue that is under-illuminated - discussing the topic in an innovation context, not just in a context of responsibility, just as sustainability has long been the case ,
Tertschnig: In essence, the SDGs are the global regulatory framework for a better world. The individual goals are considered to be of different urgency and relevance. But there is a basic consensus that every effort should be made to make the world 2030 look like the 17 goals. There is a large, effective, complex and highly committed global machinery. In Austria, we have chosen the approach of not centralizing our SDG efforts, but of transferring them to the responsibility of the individual actors - who act in different effective ways. But essentially, I see a growing dynamic in the political debate with the SDG. What really surprised me was the view of the economy, and above all the rhetoric of the major international corporate platforms, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), which almost raves about the SDG as a guideline. I would have expected that the economy would rather press for a specification at national level.
"The central point of the SDG debate is to also discuss the topic in an innovation, not just in a responsibility context."
How can the SDGs be linked to corporate goals?
Grafhorst: The question is, at which level you start. Discussions in companies are relatively rare at the meta-level where the SDGs are based - most of the time it's about the day-to-day business. Although most companies have been contributing to individual SDGs for a long time, it is not necessary to produce the cover. And bringing both together now, the big picture and the contribution as a company, has not been made enough.
Tertschnig: For the first time, we have a situation where companies are not only required to account for the fact that they do no harm, but are invited to present what positive social contributions they make. The former was a dilemma of the sustainability debate of the past 20 years, which has essentially been limited to the fact that companies have argued along very vague guidelines how to avoid damage. Now, with the SDGs, we have an attractive portfolio that is relevant to virtually every business activity in one way or another - be it as a challenge or as a contribution the company makes. What I'm asking is: What does that mean for a company's strategy development? How can you distinguish yourself by dealing with the SDG on the market?
Stettner: We welcome the fact that the SDG provides a framework for pursuing the same goals from governments to companies. Such a joint action benefits a company like Andritz Hydro in any case. Let me illustrate this with an example: as a supplier of equipment, we are only involved in hydropower projects at a relatively late stage. If it then turns out that a project has not come off completely clean, we as a single company have only limited opportunities to bring it in a sustainable direction. That's why we've been working early on industry-wide collaboration to create a consistent framework across the industry for sustainability and anti-corruption. The SDGs form an even wider roof for this.
Grafhorst: As a plastics company, we have to go one step further, because our industry is facing a fundamental change. And if you do not see this change as an opportunity, then that can be critical. The point is, to reorganize ourselves so that we can positively occupy our products and be able to work out even more clearly which future-proof possibilities arise from plastics. Of course, we have dealt with topics such as emissions or resource efficiency on a daily basis in the past. What is new is that a holistic perspective is required, and if you fail to find answers as a company, it will be difficult. The art lies in not focusing on activities any more, but really rethinking old decision-making patterns.
"The trick is to no longer set specific activities, but really to rethink decision-making patterns."
What role does politics play here?
Tertschnig: The government's challenge in implementing the SDGs is to set framework conditions and not to dictate specifically to the individual target groups what they should do. This is in line with the basic understanding of the 2030 Agenda that although there is a commitment by the states, this includes all actors in a society. What can the state do? He can set priorities because he sees opportunities or because gaps need to be closed. Here politics and administration should create both orientation and security. And develop a narrative that breaks down the complexity of the topic and explains why it is relevant for certain stakeholder groups and how this can be reconciled with their life and business reality. Not enough happens. That is actually paradoxical in view of an agenda that today seems to everyone to be taken for granted to a large extent and with which one can identify with pleasure and authentically without much thought. In the context of SDG implementation, companies are not the ones who have to convince or who cause problems, but partners.
Grafhorst: On the one hand, politics could play a more active role. On the other hand, we should be careful about demands on politicians as long as we as a company still have our homework to do, for example - as I said - with the integration of the SDGs in company decisions or with cooperation within the industry. Here we are moving closer together in industry and are working much more closely in value chains to solve problems. This is a big step, because in the past everyone worked to himself. Of course, smart regulation can help companies go in the right direction. One should not overlook the fact that there are regulatory frameworks, but they date from the 1970s, when topics such as the circular economy were irrelevant.
Stettner: For me, the focus is not on the direct interaction between politics and the individual company. Rather, it is about political signals and stability at the macro level. This is a big issue, especially in the hydropower sector, because the return on investment of power plants is long-term. The expansion of renewable energy is heavily subsidy-driven, and the European states have done very different things at different speeds here, each one for themselves, and always something else. That's poison for our industry. Until 2050 CO2To become neutral is a strong statement, but to reach that goal efficiently you have to clarify where the journey is going. And then you have to be able to rely on it.
"In the context of SDG implementation, companies are not the ones that are convincing or cause problems, but partners."
Tertschnig: It is certainly a big challenge, and sometimes there is still a way to make policy decisions with a long-term and transformative effect. This can be seen not least in the funding policy, where more sustainable approaches in almost all areas have always been in the red. The relations are pretty crass in part. But subsidies are always only the second best means, because they compensate for a failure in another area. And, accordingly, a rich development landscape is a bridging aid to accompany development in a particular direction, but should not be permanent.
Many thanks for the interview!
Wolfram Tertschnig leads the Department of Sustainable Development and Natural Resources in the Federal Ministry of Sustainability and Tourism.
Stefan Grafenhorst is sustainability manager at Plastics processors and foam producers Greiner.
Peter Stettner has been with the for 25 years Turbine manufacturer Andritz Hydro active and responsible for market strategy.