Leading the Way: Business Innovation & Multilaterlism in Working Toward the SDGs

The United States Council for International Businesses (USCIB) is a key global leadership and advocacy organization, comprising a membership of 300+ multinational businesses and representing around a third of all Fortune 500 companies. It is a key voice in international sustainability and policy. This month, we spoke with Norine Kennedy – Senior Vice President, Policy and Global Strategy, at the USCIB – where she is the lead environment, energy and climate change expert for the organization, promoting U.S. business participation in international environmental policy.

You’ve been working at the forefront of sustainability and business innovation for over 20 years – could you share a bit about what has driven and inspired you and shaped your journey? What are the biggest insights and learnings you’ve gained along the way? What do you foresee as the biggest opportunities and challenges for business innovation around issues of sustainability and climate – currently and moving into the future?

Norine: There is a tongue in cheek turn of phrase that probably applies to almost anyone who spends their time in New York where I’m based: “The journey of 1,000 steps actually begins with the words – I know a shortcut.” Well, I learned early on in my career that there is no shortcut when it comes to advancing sustainability. And I also realized you should never be discouraged by political headwinds, by slow decision-making, or by setbacks or roadblocks. Even more than the passion to make a difference, the pursuit of sustainability requires you to make a double commitment: to innovation and to perseverance.

For me, sustainable development is the ultimate expression of international relations, which was the focus of my studies in university. While much of that academic coursework seemed primarily concerned with conflict and hegemony, what really fascinated me were the much rarer possibilities for progress when 190+ countries succeeded in working together. And I think that’s one of the reasons that the UN’s 2030 Agenda – which was agreed by all UN Member States and includes the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Agreement and Financing for Development – is so important. I have long paid close attention to opportunities for collective ingenuity and problem solving – even among diverse and disparate actors — directed at making the world better for everyone. This is my vision of what multilateralism should aim for, because without it, advancing the sustainability agenda is simply impossible.

“Even more than the passion to make a difference, the pursuit of sustainability requires you to make a double commitment: to innovation and to perseverance.”

And the rapid speed of change in the space, the levels of complexity involved have shown me time and again the importance of taking a step back to see the big picture of sustainable development. Different viewers see different elements, and each time we look, we notice something else that wasn’t visible before: and especially as science progresses, and as big data becomes widely accessible, the international community is developing a clearer understanding of what it needs to focus on, and how it can make a positive contribution – for example to the fabric of biodiversity, or to addressing the impacts of a changing climate.

Having spent a lot of time with leaders and colleagues from some of the World’s largest businesses, who have often travelled long distances and given up weekends to participate in some of the key processes and negotiations that have shaped the Sustainability landscape we now have in front of us, I am convinced that business is a central and under-appreciated agent for sustainability in society and in the multilateral system. While some assert that business is concerned only with the short term, my experience is just the opposite. A business cannot simply embrace the status quo and expect to be successful for very long – insights, innovation, and investment are required, across all of the economy, as well as all of society.

I feel fortunate to have worked and to be able to continue to work with business visionaries in every sector, not just in the United States where I am based, but also through the global business organizations that USCIB is linked with – the International Chamber of Commerce, Business at OECD and the International Organization of Employers. Between us we represent over 50 million businesses of all sizes, and over 1 billion employees, which gives you some idea of the impact – and responsibility – these organizations have to engage with Sustainability issues.

“Between us we represent over 50 million businesses of all sizes, and over 1 billion employees, which gives you some idea of the impact – and responsibility – these organizations have to engage with Sustainability issues.”

Starting from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and onward through further UN sustainability conferences in Johannesburg and then back in Rio, a small but ever growing community of what I would describe as “business diplomats” has emerged. Each of them of course represents and supports their own organization but they also work collectively – as they are innovators, solutions providers, and partners to deliver sustainable development. It is this diversity of sector, perspective and expertise, as well as the approach to inclusiveness and balanced representation that makes this community special, and especially capable of appreciating and tackling multi-faceted sustainability challenges, such as those set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

I have also observed – and I hope, helped inform — the change in attitude and practice towards business that we see in those international institutions across the United Nations system. In the early days of the UN climate negotiations in the early 90s, participation by business groups and many individual businesses was not viewed or perceived positively. Through a long process of dialogue, and ongoing efforts that continue to today, and as a direct result of businesses increasing their understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist in this space, it is now pro-active businesses, including many USCIB members, who are leading the charge for market-based approaches to climate change and calling for ambitious net-zero targets.

The UN recently convened the annual Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Forum for the SDGs – what were your key takeaways from the gathering? What do you see as the most promising opportunities around Science, Technology and Innovation in building resilient, sustainable futures as we build back beyond the pandemic?

This year’s UN STI Forum put a spotlight on the imperative of strengthening the interface across science and policymaking with business and society, especially as the international community both addresses the pandemic and its impacts and plans for a sustainable recovery. A takeaway was that the international community needs to broaden its cooperation with the private sector to deploy innovations in healthcare, the digital economy, and across all 17 SDGs.

Simply put, the extraordinary potential of private sector innovation for sustainable development calls for extraordinary international cooperation.

“Simply put, the extraordinary potential of private sector innovation for sustainable development calls for extraordinary international cooperation.” 

While private sector innovation and engagement has leapt ahead, for example during the pandemic with vaccines and treatments, or with new approaches to make work and education accessible for many during lockdowns, public-private-research partnerships are in the spotlight as never before, including several within the UN system.

As we continue to build understanding and approaches towards Sustainability in a post-Covid context, I would suggest that multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) point the way to leveraging scientific innovation and understanding, wherever it is found, across academia, in the business community or in connection with citizen science.

How do you see the role of business innovation in working toward the SDGs? How has business innovation contributed thus far? How might we continue to improve and expand the role of business innovation in achieving the SDGs as we work toward the 2030 deadline?

Multilateralism continues to be a must in today’s society and global marketplace. It continues to deliver important benefits to people all over the world, and to business. However, the current approach to multilateralism is not living up to its full potential, and the pandemic has raised the difficulty level significantly, requiring even more so an all hands on deck approach, especially for the private sector.

“The current approach to multilateralism is not living up to its full potential, and the pandemic has raised the difficulty level significantly, requiring even more so an all hands on deck approach, especially for the private sector.”

A recent report by the UN Secretary General, “Progress Towards the SDGs” shows that efforts towards the SDGs have been knocked off track, and that hard won progress in key development areas has lost ground in many parts of the world: poverty eradication, access to education and gender equality, among others. And these issues aren’t just important for political leaders – they go to the heart of empowering our economies as well.

Recovering sustainably in the Decade of Action and Delivery will require a stronger than ever business commitment and enhanced meaningful engagement. The private sector has to be seen, fully accepted and recognized as an essential partner in building back better – a source not only of funding, but also of innovation and its deployment, expertise, technology, fresh ideas, and diverse perspectives of business and employers. It has earned the right to be part of those conversations, with actions to back up words. But now it can, must and will do more.

With less than ten years until 2030 climate and sustainability targets are due, driving the SDGs forward and building back stronger together must now go hand in hand. We have seen what innovative business is capable of when confronted by what seem to be unsurmountable challenges, such as climate change, or the COVID-19 crisis. The private sector has been at the forefront of tackling the pandemic through innovation and stepping forward – from the historic race to develop vaccines through Project Warp Speed, to opening up business premises to production of personal protection equipment (PPE) and vaccination campaigns, to training and educating employees on public health and safety, for example through USCIB’s Business Partners to Convince initiative.

“With less than ten years until 2030 climate and sustainability targets are due, driving the SDGs forward and building back stronger together must now go hand in hand.

What perhaps excites and energizes me the most is that over the past few years in particular multilateral organizations such as the UN and its agencies have realized and an initiated a process of institutional evolution that will enable them to work more closely with business and other stakeholders. If we are to really “leave no one behind,” the UN must now accelerate opportunities and channels to bring business and other important societal actors to the table. Now is the time for inclusive “hands on” multilateralism, to engage all sectors of business, and to inform decision making, innovation and investments for the decades to come.

The need for business to be involved and to make a positive contribution was true nearly 30 years ago at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio, and it is true today as we look ahead to COP26 in Glasgow. We must tackle all of society’s challenges using best private sector systems-thinking, as well as doing, which simply put means putting business purpose and innovation into action. Looking ahead, I will continue championing private sector innovation as the catalyst for sustainability and to make the case for inclusive multilateralism for scale and impact. And while there is (still) no shortcut, the steps forward to make the world more sustainable are as vital as ever, and I am looking forward to continuing the journey.

About Norine Kennedy

With over 20 years’ experience as USCIB’s lead environment, energy and climate change expert, Norine Kennedy promotes U.S. business participation in international environmental policy and management initiatives, and works closely with industry, government and NGOs to promote sustainable development and green growth. She also spearheads USCIB’s strategic international engagement initiative, which seeks to advance meaningful business participation and regulatory diplomacy in inter-governmental organizations, and focuses on increasing accountability of international institutions regarding business interests.

In addition to staffing USCIB’s 120 company Environment Committee, Kennedy represents business in environmental discussions at the UN and OECD. She was a business observer at the UN’s 1992 Earth Summit in Rio and served on the U.S. delegation to the Rio+20 summit in 2012. She regularly participates in meetings of the UN Environment Programme and UN deliberations on the Sustainable Development Goals and Post-2015 Development Agenda, and in negotiating sessions for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Kennedy joined USCIB in 1991, having served at the World Environment Center as project manager in its corporate programs department. She holds a master’s degree in international environmental policy from Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Wellesley College.

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