Changing the world is everybody’s business

We are living in a hotter, hungrier world.

For the third year running, the United Nations has reported that global hunger is on the rise. And this isn’t solely a faraway problem.

Newly available figures on food insecurity in Scotland show a worrying 10% of people in our most deprived areas reported having run out of food over a 12 month period. It comes amid slowly rising levels of poverty and widening income inequality.

While we’re manifestly failing to provide for everyone, we’re also living beyond our environmental means: if the rest of the world lived as we do in the UK, we’d need nearly three planet earths to sustain ourselves.

Simply put, the system is broken.

Encouragingly, there’s growing momentum in Scotland behind the sort of measures we know are urgently needed to help fix it.

Three years ago, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made Scotland one of the first countries on the planet to commit to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

Positively, the Scottish Government is attempting to realise this promise through efforts to, for example, make work fairer and to make social security more dignified. It also claims global leadership on climate change, though this is at risk due to the Government’s reluctance to set a legal target of net zero climate emissions by 2050.

Yet governments can’t do it all. Others must play their part too – including businesses. Worryingly, too few seem to be doing so. Oxfam’s analysis of 76 of the world’s largest companies shows too few are translating their commitment to the SDGs into new action.

In Scotland, we have a chance to tell a different story.

At the same time as the First Minister signed up to the SDGs, the Government launched the Scottish Business Pledge.

Businesses signing the Pledge make a commitment to adopt fair and progressive business practices. They must pay the Living Wage and not use zero hour contracts, and are then asked to commit to a ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ of other commitments, like investing in young people.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? The problem has been translating this Pledge into meaningful change. While more businesses are taking their responsibilities seriously, as of this summer, just 0.3% of Scotland’s registered business base had signed up the Pledge.

Ministers acknowledge the Business Pledge needs a revamp. The refreshed Pledge should place the SDGs at its heart and provide a road map for how businesses in Scotland can help spread rewards more fairly – in Scotland and globally.

But, crucially, it should also do more to support them to achieve that goal and reward those making progress. This includes looking again at where and how public services in Scotland buy goods and services, an area the Government recently announced a further review.

Now is also the chance to address glaring gaps within the Pledge itself, such as the failure to demand businesses do more to protect the environment while adopting ethical tax policies.

The Pledge also currently fails to set out clear actions businesses should take to tackle gender inequality. Instead, it has a weak request that signatories commit to “making progress on diversity and gender balance”. This is currently the least fulfilled commitment.

If the Pledge is going to help drive meaningful change, people must have greater confidence in it and that means introducing a more robust and transparent accreditation process. Signing the Pledge shouldn’t be a one-off tick box exercise: businesses should be encouraged, indeed required, to continuously improve their practice.

Now is the time to make these adjustments and then to shout about them.

Next month, the Scottish Government will spearhead the launch of a new international platform to bring governments together to develop ‘wellbeing economies’ which place people and planet first. Enhancing the Business Pledge would help show that achieving a fairer world isn’t just an admirable aspiration – it can be delivered.

If we’re going to redress the balance between rich and poor, men and women, and protect our planet, then national governments need to bring the business community along with them – while stretching their ambitions. After all, changing the world is everybody’s business.

This article originally appeared in The Scotsman.