Driving business towards the Sustainable Development Goals offered by Erasmus University Rotterdam was one of the best online courses I've ever taken. By showing real-world business cases, the well-structured course gave me a clear understanding of individual Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) following the "wedding cake" model:
* Credit: Azote Images for Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University
The point is SDGs are mutually dependent; our life (society) relies fully on the natural resources (biosphere), and the economy exists on the top of human life. Therefore, there is a wide variety of opportunities for each of us to contribute to SDGs both in personal and business.
Taking responsibility in an infinite journey
Key takeaways can be explained by the quotes captured from the course videos.
First of all, the issues in ecological, social, and economical sustainability are made up of many different factors, and there is no clear "goal" that we can stop maintaining sustainability.
Sustainability is a journey and not a destination.
—Bob Collymore, A former CEO of Safaricom
When you eat, buy, move, work—Throughout our entire life, we have to be considerate of the problems and take as many actions as possible. That's the only way to achieve SDGs in the true sense.
What I really like about the course is they emphasized the importance of system thinking, which requires us to holistically consider mutually dependent problems while comparing synergies vs. trade-offs.
For instance, if you start using a shopping bag to reduce the consumption of plastic bags, that's great. However, where is your shopping bag created, by whom? Typically, such mass products are created in lower-income counties, and the challenge about economical/social sustainability remains even though your effort mitigates an ecological problem.
Consequently, short-term mitigation focusing only on a single aspect of the problems won't be sufficient, and the actions must be taken more responsibly; it is important to be serious about the issues as a personal matter.
To begin with, having a solid plan is important to deeply engage in the problems, and looking into Your Plan, Your Planet by Google and The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World can be the first step.
Speaking of SDGs in business, sustainability is a big business opportunity for companies as I described in Environmental Problems Through the Lens of Business. That said...
Too many companies are hiding behind charity while they say we take our responsibility. Charity is not taking responsibility, taking responsibility is changing the core of your operations.
—Arjen Boekhold, Co-founder of Tony's Chocolonely
The goals cannot be achieved without a deep, long-term integration with business, and solving global problems also needs funding/financial strategy, project management, and business development.
Unfortunately, there is a contradiction that truly meaningful business from the sustainable perspective is less profitable. To overcome the problem, a drastic change of the system is needed:
- if there were a high tax rate for human activities that cause air pollution;
- if the social impact were reflected in product prices;
- if plastic were more expensive.
These possibilities have been discussed in My First Impression After Reading Bill Gates's "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster".
Hummingbird challenges: What "I" can do
If we look at SDG Tracker, the data makes me feel like SGDs are highly ambitious challenges that there is very little thing I can do. It is true—Each of us doesn't have enough power of changing the world, and I'm just one of the 8 billion people on the earth, like a little hummingbird in a large forest.
However, individuals' actions are surely propagated to others, and what the hummingbird did does have a meaning in the long run.
Below is a list of hummingbird challenges the course requested us to tackle, and I had a great opportunity to think of where "I" am and what "I" can do, as a personal matter.
- Calculate my ecological footprint by using a tool.
- Try to reduce the daily use of plastic, and recycle them e.g., reusing coffee cups, taking a bag to grocery stores.
- Take a look at tags on my clothes, and check their origin. See how much transparency the brand provides (c.f. Fashion Transparency Index).
- Assess my subconscious associations for people who are different from me, by using the Implicit Association Test.
- Trace the origin of my lunch; how much its production process is transparent, and how they respect people and the environment throughout the process.
- Review how my employer contributes to SDGs. Imagine the possibility of "unusual" collaboration with partners that could help the organization to make an impact on SDGs while maintaining benefits & strengths.
- Try system mapping, like a word association game. For example, to make up a cup of coffee, what's needed? What kind of factors to be considered in the biosphere, society, and economy?
My action items
To summarize, SGDs are the core of saving our day-to-day life with loved ones, and persistently accumulating small changes on my own responsibility is the only way to grab the "normal" in the future.
What I'm recently trying to do is as follows:
- Reduce daily energy (electricity and water) use and plastic consumption as much as possible.
- Review my job through the lens of SDGs and choose a career that I can believe it's truly meaningful for our life. That is, avoid bullshit jobs.
- Make a meat-free day(s) and swap whey protein powder for vegan protein powder, and regularly eat more vegetables and less meat.
So, what do you do?
Author: Takuya Kitazawa
Takuya Kitazawa is working on machine learning, data science, and product development at Treasure Data.
Opinions are my own.
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