​​​​​​​Why honesty is the best policy when talking about the SDGs

Mario Abreu, Vice President Sustainability, Tetra Pak

The environmental, social and economic challenges we face, they’re all connected. This is recognised by the 17 goals, and 169 targets that sit underneath them - known collectively as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Covering a diverse range of issues including gender equality, sustainable cities, access to clean water and good governance; the goals have reached buzzword status. As their popularity grows, there is the risk that they become more of a box ticking exercise for businesses, a form of greenwashing. To avoid this and reach the SDGs by 2030 business need to be transparent, assessing and recognising where they can have an impact – not only a positive one, but also where there is a potential for them to have an adverse impact.

It is important for businesses to understand their contribution to the goals as they report against them, but it isn’t enough to report positive progress around one or two SDGs, while ignoring negative impacts on another goal. Take a company that produces solar panels. They can claim to be contributing positively to innovation (SDG 9) and climate action (SDG 13), but if they don’t take into consideration their full operations, they’re only telling half the story. In this case, this can be because the materials they are using to create the solar panels could be impacting land (SDG 15), while the waste they’re creating could be negatively impacting water (SDG 14). This lack of transparency is a serious issue, and significantly increases the risk of greenwashing.

Ultimately, solutions will also only work if they are joined up. That’s why our approach to sustainability encompasses our entire value chain, going beyond our own operations and our customers. At Tetra Pak we’ve committed to support all of the 17 Goals, and in 2017, we spent eight months on a rigorous materiality assessment identifying and prioritising those aspects of our business where we could have the greatest economic, environmental and social impacts and/or could substantively influence stakeholder decisions.

To do this we followed a four-step process: first, we identified the stakeholders: employees, customers, consumers, key influencers, regulators, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and suppliers. In future years we will also engage communities, recyclers and the media. Next, we identified the material aspects. We then analysed these aspects across the value chain, both in packaging materials and equipment. Through a series of workshops, interviews and research we then prioritised these aspects, and as a final step our materiality matrix (mapped against the axes influence on stakeholder decisions & significance of impacts on Tetra Pak) was validated by our Strategy Council.

At the end of this, we identified that food waste, packaging design, and energy use are three of the 14 material aspects where we believe we can have the biggest impact as a company. Simultaneously they help us make a direct contribution to SDGs 2 (Zero Hunger), 12 (Responsible Production and Consumption) 13 (Climate Impact). Every two years we will be re-evaluating our top material aspects to identify potential gaps and changes that need to be reflected – and adjusting our business strategy accordingly.

Taking an outside in perspective is always helpful. One example was the collaboration we did with the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership – CISL. CISL has a programme called Rewiring The Economy, which helped translating the SDGs into tasks that could be either led by business, by governments, or by financial institutions. Tetra Pak was invited to contribute to a CISL report for being an example of a company that has understood the commercial imperative to deliver the SDGs. In other words, not doing it only because it’s right, but because it can deliver business benefits.​

In my 19 years at Tetra Pak, sustainability has always been at the core of our promise to protect food, people and futures. That is to say, we are not new to this, and we’ve been looking at the science of environment for decades – but aligning to the SDG’s has enabled us to expand and evolve our approach. Recently, we published our 2018 Sustainability Report, marking 20 years of sustainability reporting. Over the years, our focus has shifted from an environmental commitment, to evaluating every part of our business and its impact.

Finally, I recognise integrating sustainability into a business’ strategy is not easy, however we believe it is essential. While fundamentally it will be down to governments to ensure SDG implementation at a national level, the goals won’t be achieved without meaningful action from business. It’s businesses who drive economic growth, employment, and act as a source of sustainable innovation. This is why it’s so important to combat greenwashing. Particularly as companies feel more pressure than ever to tout their sustainability, and adhere to frameworks such as the SDGs, it is therefore important to tell the truth. Acknowledging the good, and the bad, along with a plan of action to transform business using the SDGs as roadmap.