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Why should lawyers care about the UN Global Compact and the UN SDGs?

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

“The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice. The Goals interconnect and in order to leave no one behind, it ís important that we achieve each Goal and target by 2030.”

The world is changing and so is the way we must do business. Companies and their clients and vendors are being called to join in a global corporate sustainability initiative to create a better world by meeting United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

What are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

As follow on to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which were adopted in 2000 and were largely achieved within their 15-year timeline, the United Nations developed the roadmap for the next 15 years—the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) with a target date of 2030. Adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, this framework provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet—now and into the future.

The UNSDGs website describes the goals (often referred to as the Global Goals) as an urgent call for action by all developed and developing countries in a global partnership to end poverty, improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth—all while addressing climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests. With fewer than 12 years remaining to the target date, there is much work to be done.

Achieving these goals will take the efforts of the entire global village, including public and private sectors, as well as civil society.

What is the United Nations Global Compact?

As described on its website, the United Nations Global Compact is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative. The UN Global Compact is a call to companies to align strategies and operations with universal principles on human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption, AND take actions that advance societal goals. The mission of the Global Compact is to mobilize a global movement of sustainable companies and stakeholders to create the world we want. To end extreme poverty, fight inequality, and tackle climate change, companies around the world are signing the Global Compact, committing to do well by operating responsibly, taking bold actions, and bringing the voice of responsible business to world leaders. The Global Compact currently has more than 12,000 signatory entities in more than 160 countries.

Growing stakeholder expectations

Increasingly, stakeholders are expecting their employers, the companies they do business with, their supply chain, and their vendors to do the right thing. It is no longer possible for companies to “fly under the radar.” They’re expected to be clear and vocal about their vision, their values, and their purpose. Indeed, expectations today include companies’ taking a position on social issues—having a voice and leading the way to address the biggest challenges facing society today.

In his 2019 letter to CEOs, the CEO of Blackrock, Larry Fink, made the following points:

  • “Society is increasingly looking to companies, both public and private, to address pressing social and economic issues.

  • Companies that fulfill their purpose and responsibilities to stakeholders reap the rewards over the long-term. Companies that ignore them stumble and fail.

  • At a time of great political and economic disruption, your leadership is indispensable.

  • The world depends on you to embrace and advocate for a long-term approach in business.

Why should lawyers care about the UN Global Compact and the UN SDGs?

Whether you are working within an in-house legal department, in the public sector, or in a private law firm, all lawyers must familiarize themselves with these goals and the entire movement and understand what it means for their company, their firm, their employees, their clients, and their community. By understanding the Global Compact initiative, and the corresponding Sustainable Development Goals, lawyers will be better positioned to advise clients, to engage in their firms, and become active with their clients in support of this blueprint for a better planet.

Many of the signatory companies to the United Nations Global Compact are doing incredible work to advance the goals, as evidenced in annual “Communications on Progress” documents required of all signatory companies. Recognizing that “doing good” is NOT mutually exclusive to “doing well” but rather can contribute to better long-term, sustainable financial returns, businesses have made the goals strategic to their business.

They understand that a viable, sustainable society is critical to their long-term success. It is vitally important for their outside law firms to understand their clients’ strategies in order to provide appropriate advice to achieve those goals and serve as partners in this work.

Goal #17 – Partnerships for the Goals

The last (but certainly not least) of the UNSDGs is Goal #17—Partnerships for the Goals. This goal recognizes and reminds us all that it will take partnerships and collaborations of all types to make greater progress toward the goals than would be possible if working alone or independently. What an amazing opportunity for outside law firms to join their clients’ efforts! What support could you provide your clients as they work to make progress toward the selected UNSDGs that are relevant and material to their business success? Collaborating with clients to make progress toward the goals is an incredibly meaningful way to strengthen the depth and breadth of the relationship, and, at least for the short term, may differentiate your firm.

Longer term, however, understanding and being engaged in the UNSDGs will simply be standard requirements for service providers and other vendors. Recently, one company’s RFP required successful bidders to provide their firm’s CSR policy and to sign the UN Global Compact. Just as clients drove the focus to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion within and amongst their outside law firms, so too will they be driving greater commitment and engagement in the UNSDGs. Law firms who recognize and embrace this movement will have an advantage over those who don’t recognize this trend and its importance to clients.

A call to address society’s most pressing problems

The legal profession is an esteemed one. Serving as a lawyer is a calling as much as a profession for many. And just as stakeholders around the globe are expecting more from businesses, so to, does society expect much of the legal profession when it comes to addressing some of the greatest challenges facing civil society today. Who better to lead progress toward the UN Global Compact’s universal principles on human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption than the global legal profession?

To paraphrase a sentence we all know:

“Now is the time for all good men (and women) to come to the aid of their country …, and indeed, their world.”

Coming up In next editions’s article, I’ll share evidence of increasing interest in and focus on law firms’ CSR and sustainability programs from recruits, employees, and especially clients—and how firms are responding (or not).


About the Author

Pamela Cone has more than 25 years' experience in the professional services industry in marketing and communications roles, and more recently, building social responsibility programs in collaboration with clients and in alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of 2030. She is the Founder and CEO of Amity Advisory, a consultancy to help firms strengthen their CSR programs beyond transactional to achieve truly transformational social impact outcomes.

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