The role of companies and institutions in sustainability transition

Published on 2022-06-17


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Nadia Paleari, Brand Innovation Strategist and Global Partnerships & Events Project Officer at the UN SDSN, gave us an inside look at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and talked about the possibilities for companies related to sustainable transition.


I will just briefly introduce myself: I'm an innovation and sustainability consultant. I worked with agencies and international institutions in order to raise awareness of what sustainability is because it's a very complex concept and issue. 

So we need to understand what we mean by sustainability and I do so also in terms of youth engagement and youth empowerment because I believe that the next generation is the one that will bring solutions. So I also work for the United Nations Sustainable Development Solution Network youth initiative, for global partnerships and events and I’m a European climate tech ambassador for the European Union. 

How to become a partner of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network

My background is quite peculiar: I studied international relations and European studies when I was back at university, but I always knew that I didn't want to go for diplomacy - the classic field - because I was passionate about communication.

I specialize with a master in cultural diplomacy, soft power country communication and country branding. And that's where I first met the branding discipline. After that, I started to work for creative agencies as a brand strategist. Specifically working on a project in brand communication and brand management, in doing so, I also kept my activity as what can be called an advocate but working for youth empowerment. 

I became part of a lot of young networks in the United Nation. The first one was the UNCTAD the United Nation Agency for Trade and Development and here, I started my first international experience in Geneva at the United Nations Headquarters, where I participated in the world trade organization public forum. 

Back before the pandemic, I started my activity and at the same time, I always wanted to be proactive. So for example, I wanted to raise awareness of people about what does it mean to be a citizen of the European Union and so that's why I also created a lot of events here in my hometown or in Milan or where it comes from, just through getting involved because that's what most of the people need to understand. It's just about taking the first step, being curious and making an impact. 

It was last summer when I decided to join the United Nations Sustainable Development Solution Network as global partnerships and events project officer. 

Since they always say that I'm "a person that creates bridges" I feel that this is the position that suits me the most and I've been working with them for almost a year right now. 

What is United Nations Sustainable Development Solution Network 

The Sustainable Development Solution Network is an initiative that was launched within the framework of the United Nations. It's being carried out by professor Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and advisor to three different United Nations Secretary-Generals. 

As the name suggests, it is a very practical network of solutions.

We are all familiar with the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. What we struggle most with is finding solutions, so this network provides a focal point for research and innovation because we create many different reports on sustainability and sustainable development. 

At the same time, we act as connectors between organizations, civil society, institutions and specifically regarding the youth initiative. That's what we aim to do. 

We say that our motto is that we mobilize youth worldwide in order to achieve sustainable development goals and we want to make an impact. The youth initiative focuses on empowerment and we act in three ways.

The first one is education: we create reports on what is agenda 2030, is sustainability and we also try to translate it, because another important thing is that of course we can have a global strategy, but we have to act locally.

The second part it's about creating the network: we have both membership and network programs inside SDSN youth and we try to connect them in a useful and efficient way. So we use the term that network is "net worth": you have to create value. 

We don't want to just create and engage with new youth organizations, but we want to understand how we can be useful for them, or how different associations and different organizations can connect with each other and help build solutions to help create new programs.

And the third one it's about international engagement in policymaking: because the next generation is also the next generation of leaders. It's critical to involve young people in policymaking, in the decision rooms right now. So we also try to grant them access, not just to have youth at the table, but to have youth that is listened to that's critical.

The role of institutions within the context of corporate sustainability

One of the main issues that I always highlight is the fact that we have three main actors in society - institutions, student society and the corporate private sector - and they don't talk enough or they don't talk to each other at all.

What we need to do is to create dialogue and that's why I decided to work in this sector because I have both experience in the institutional sector and in the private sector. 

It's really like they're talking in two different languages: they're saying the same things because, in the end, we're going towards the same target, but they're just talking in different languages. 
We need to translate what happens in one sphere onto the other so that we can work together: that is what the Sustainable Development Solutions Network is doing. Not only in regards to youth association, but also in terms of the private sector.

What is critical in terms of sustainability and corporate is that right now, there is a lot of talk about how corporate businesses use sustainability just as a mere reputation tool, that is, to make greenwashing
Now, we're going into another phase because we realize that sustainable businesses are the ones that will last long, the more profitable ones and also the healthier. There is a natural, economical interest in the transition: before it can be just a communication exercise meanwhile right now, we are starting to understand that sustainability creates value. 

We talk about Corporate Social Responsibility: a commitment for corporations that is most of the time perceived as philanthropy, but they are very different topics. 
The role of the Institutions It's to help corporate frame their impact, so that it is not just philanthropy, because if we can insert the corporate impact within a framework -  which can be the agenda 2030 or the European green deal - they actually can measure it. 
They can see what their impact is about, they can have goals, they can have measurement tools and they can validate what they're doing.

I like to use the metaphor: it's like you're playing a chess game and the role of the institution is to provide the chess board and the rules of the game and the role of the corporate is to actually play the game. But if they do not receive the rules, if they do not have a chess board, they just play and they're not connecting with each other. So there is no strategy and in the end, the impact and the solution are mitigated. 

That is why it has to be a common effort and both the institutional and corporate sectors need to dialogue more. 

Are companies becoming more sustainable?

Brands and companies are starting to move in towards a more sustainable direction and as I was saying, it's not about philanthropy because it's convenient to do so: it has been demonstrated that businesses that are transitioning towards more sustainable models, make their business model more profitable in the long-term.  

A couple of years ago, it was just a question of communication saying that some brands are more sustainable than others and we didn't really grasp the economical value of the green transitions and still struggled a lot today. It's still a passage that we have to make, but I think that we're going towards a shifting point in this sense.

That's because CSR is not disconnected from the business anymore: in order to make CSR effective it has to be integrated into the business strategy and only a business strategy that takes into account sustainability - environmental, economical and social sustainability - is an effective strategy.

When we talk about a business that is creating value, it's about creating value for the context that you are positioned within for all your stakeholders. That is the difference: not just doing CSR for sustainability sakes or philanthropy sakes, but doing it to generate business value and inserted it within your business strategy, so that your business objective takes into consideration sustainability.

What happened at the last international meeting Stockholm+50

I have recently participated in Stockholm+50, It is like being long waited. We know that every year there is the COP - the annual event for environmental and sustainability - but this time Stockholm waited even more waited because it was 50 years after the first-ever international meeting on the environment.

It was in 1972 in Stockholm, that the UNEP, the United Nations Environment Program was established. 
The international meeting convened by the United Nations General Assembly in Stockholm to talk about what has been done in the past 50 years, was an important moment because it was a turning point in terms of international policymaking on the environment. 

One of the most critical issues that were raised was to see how much of the last 50 years of policymaking has actually been implemented.
What is missing is always the implementation part: we have regulations, initiatives and programs, but we never actually implement them
It is still a hot topic because, at the end of the meeting in Stockholm, we're doing a lot of conferences and international events, but at the same time the regulation party accountability is what is missing. 

Accountability is the key word because that's the answer when people ask me or any participant the question: "we have the regulation, we have the tools, we have the knowledge, we have everything. Why don't we implement them?" answer is accountability. 

It's been 50 years and there's still a lot to do, but I am satisfied with Stockholm+50 because it was just a two days event and it was meant to be a commemoration. So of course I was not expecting negotiation going on there, but at the same time, it was not worthless.
They made it meaningful because it was the moment in which we could gather after two years and where all the research, the innovation and the process that have been developing in the last decade have been presented. 

The scientific community was very strong: they made their voice heard and this doesn't happen very often in this kind of gathering, and I think that this voice will last for the future COP. 

The different actors in the “sustainable revolution”

One of my mentors used to say that brands do not have the power nor the capacity to change society, but they're merely a reflection, like mirrors. That is why they are so reactive to what consumers are doing and what consumers are interested in because they react to it.
That is why consumers give more and more attention to sustainability issues, and why brands are also more interested in that. 

I think that this is just a narrow perspective because it's not fair to put the whole burden of the sustainability revolution - let's call it this way - on the shoulders of consumers. It's a burden that we have to share among all actors of society. Consumers certainly need to make their own interests but at the same time, they also have to be educated. 
We need to educate consumers, and brands have this role as teachers.
For example, in the food sector, we can educate citizens and consumers on what is sustainable nutrition: "How can our food consumption be more sustainable?". By educating the consumer is it possible to create a different kind of consumer, which is more conscious of its impact.
In this way, they'll ask for different products: it's a very circular kind of approach at the same time.

So I take back what I said a moment ago: companies have become more aware of the fact that integrating sustainability into their actions is actually more profitable in the long term.
It means that they have become more aware of their relationship with stakeholders and stakeholders used to be mainly economical ones or the ones that could directly influence the profit of the business. Right now it's quite different because they realize that corporate responsibility has become dynamic and has become diverse. They have different kinds of relationships according to the different kinds of stakeholders, and those that actually influence the impact of the corporate business on society are just as important as the ones that merely care about the economical profitability of the sector.

Ultimately, I think consumers right now are changing and helping brands to be more responsible. They want to dig more into what is the action, what is a brand actually doing in their more demanding. And at the same time, I think it's in the interest of the corporate business to make consumers know what they're doing.

They are educating both ways: corporate business is in a transition phase and it needs the guidance of the consumer to understand where to go, you know, to understand which needs they should answer. Consumers also need to see positive actions, positive impact and positive examples of businesses that are actually making this so that they ask for more.

You have to consider both perspectives so that the burden is shared between the two actors. 

The importance of purpose in the transition to sustainability 

Right now the purpose is everything you talk with any professional and corporate. Most of the time purpose can backfire because we risk creating a purpose that actually it's purposeless, so it's very important to remember what purpose was born for.

It is about understanding what was at the core of every activity for a professional or a business. Before making it a phrase - in the end, it is just a payoff - creating your purpose by trying to understand what really makes you do something, apart from making a profit. Only if you do that, you're actually purpose-driven. 

We see a lot of purposes that are void that mean nothing and it's risky because - as I was saying - consumers are becoming more conscious and they can spot when something is just a good communication campaign and it can work short-term, but it's not going to grant you a future proof approach.

You should never ignore the value of thinking about what you are doing and integrating sustainability into your actions because that is how you generate value. It is also what consumers and society will demand from companies: to generate value within and for the community, and not just economically. 

About the author

Nadia Paleari

Brand Innovation Strategist | UN SDSN Global Partnerships & Events | European Climate Pact Ambassador