PA Consulting’s sustainability expert, Mark Lancelott, discusses the business and societal benefits of the SDGs and the environmental impact of new technologies.
From Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, the ideas of inventors and the companies they went on to found have generated handsome profits while providing society with products and services that help people lead better lives.
Of course, what constitutes a benefit to society can be a matter of debate. Even seemingly obvious technological advances can have unforeseen side effects, and innovators run the risk of opprobrium from pressure groups, or indifference from investors.
Perhaps even more controversial is genetic modification, which has fuelled the growth of multi-billion-dollar companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta. While some see the technology as enabling the increased crop yields needed to feed a hungry world, activists blame it for everything from soil erosion to the impoverishment of farmers.
Not all food innovations are as controversial, however. Many promise healthy people, a healthy planet and healthy financial returns. In fact, agrifood technology — often enabling more sustainable food production — attracted almost $20bn in venture capital in 2019, according to AgFunder, a venture capital firm.
Many see opportunities of this sort in innovations that help meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. According to the Business and Sustainable Development Commission — a multilateral initiative established in 2016 to make a business case for the SDGs — efforts to achieve the SDGs could create $12tn in market opportunities.
Mark says: “We often talk about the SDGs as a statement of what the world needs by 2030 — and where there’s needs, there’s business opportunity.”
He argues that talk of trade-offs between helping society and turning a profit reflects outdated thinking: “If you can change your mindset and think about how to use disruptive technologies and new business models, there’s ways of driving growth. . . that can contribute to the SDGs and have a positive impact in the world.”