At Insight into Impact we aim to inform individuals about how they can improve their business by adopting more sustainable principles and practices. We talk about the Sustainable Development GOALS, impact measurement and management, impact investing, and impact-washing.
Discussing these topics with Rosemary Addis brings in a higher view to tie everything together and explain what these topics mean to the business world, no matter of size or capacity.
Rosemary’s work has been influential. Her insights have helped guide enterprise, bond, and investment decision-making across the world. For those seeking to better understand sustainability and what it means to them and for those who have struggled to understand the ‘bigger picture’, this episode is not to be missed.
Rosemary is the Executive Director of Impact Strategist, Ambassador of the Global Steering Group for Impact Investment, Chair of the Advisory Board for the Climate Ready Initiative at Griffith University, Non-Executive Director for Indigenous Business Australia, Senior Advisor to SDG Impact at the UNDP, Founder of Impact Investing Australia and Former Chair for the Australian Advisory Board on Impact Investing.
Welcome Rosemary Addis.
It is great to be here and I think the work that you are doing is really important and addresses an area that is often overlooked when people are talking about impact, particularly in the context of investment which I know we will get to later but that is the appreciation of stakeholder perspectives and to put that in the vernacular how people actually experience impact and how it affects them in their lives day to day.
What are the Sustainable Development GOALS, also known as the SDGs, and why should people care, both in terms of their personal life and from an organisational perspective?
The Sustainable Development GOALS, or the SDGs, are a set of universally agreed goals that have been agreed by countries around the world through the mechanism of the United Nations as the things we would like to see achieved for people and for the planet. It includes things that, I think, of in the vernacular as the world would like to leave for our children and grandchildren; a world where people do not live in poverty, where they have access to quality education and health services, where people have decent work. It also includes some cross-country issues like gender equality and partnerships and how we can collaborate. We can think of it if you would like as a roadmap towards addressing some of the issues that affect people and affect our planet and the way that we can build going forward. We have been making some progress towards that.
I think it is of importance to people in their personal lives because it really does set out a blueprint for a world that is prosperous and sustainable and where everybody has the opportunity to thrive and succeed.
In their professional lives, it really gives us some formal structure and metrics to the things that we would want to achieve but also the things that we want to ensure that we are not working against and that is a very topical thing this year when we have had the pandemic and we have seen how intertwined, the social and economic issues can be; when we are dealing with the issues of climate change and starting to see that that also has social and economic consequences that to have this blueprint gives us in very concrete ways of being able to engage around the issues, make it more manageable and to be able to see a path forward.
Can you please explain what the targets and indicators are?
Like with any type of blueprint, plan, or roadmap, you need the things that are going to give you the milestones or the benchmarks for/ are we making any progress on this. So, the targets if you like the ‘where we would like to get to’ and the indicators are the things that we can measure that show whether we are making progress along the way. Like any metrics they are imperfect and that is why things like the work that you do in understanding how people perceive things are also important, so they are not a panacea. The important thing about these goals is it does give us the metrics and measures but at the same time, we need to appreciate that the goals are there because they are affecting people’s lives and the issues are affecting our planet and so we are wanting to be able to address them. At the same time, we need useful and meaningful things that we can engage with to say well how do we do that, where do we focus our attention – and we are making progress as we move forward. That is where the targets and indicators are helpful because they start to give us the measures we can engage with and use and be using the same ones as other people so that we get a collective picture.
There are so many reporting initiatives with standardised approaches and there are many sustainability companies out there that are releasing handbooks. What advice can you provide that will help people better understand what is relevant to them and their organisation? Also, can you please help simplify what they should be looking for or doing to get their organisation on the right track?
Absolutely and I can understand why people sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed when they see the number of things coming forward and one of the biggest questions that we get and I expect you do too, Marcus, that is all well and good and I am born into this concept of wanting to be more sustainable but how do I do that, how do I do that in context of my business, how do I focus and what tools can I use because we have a day-to-day organisation to run and we need to be able to do things that are practical and useful.
The good news is part of the reason there is a development of these tools is that increasingly sustainability is on the agenda. What we are starting to see is the volume of activity also given way to more convergence and more consistency about how people can engage with the SDGs and with sustainability. For the first time, the work that we have been involved with the United Nations Development Programme is setting out practice standards aimed at making sense of how you translate the high-level principles, like the IFC principles, into a management system that makes sense for your organisation, linked to your strategy, relevant for context, connected to the way you are managing things that promotes the right level of transparency and how you have the right governance for that. This gives a system into which you can plug different measures and reporting tools that make sense.
At the moment, what we see is that a lot of work gets generated because people are wanting to engage but they end up using the reporting tools and work backward. What we need is to be able to build management systems for the impact that enable people to build it in as part of the way they do business rather than something extra that they need to do, and that is where the SDGs impact standards are useful.
The other thing I think is important is that a lot of work has been done these last few years to rationalise some of the approaches and language. What we have not yet done a really good job of is communicating that broadly across the business communities; I would refer people to the impact management project and one of the places to start is their ABCs and five dimensions of impact, so the ABCs are avoiding harm, benefiting stakeholders, and contributing solutions. From my perspective, I think, a great place to start is for people to get much more tuned in their business to what are the opportunities to be avoiding harm, where are the opportunities to be creating more benefit and where in their business context are they have the opportunity to also be contributing some solutions.
Can you give a little bit of advice for SME owners and operators that will never have the time to review and incorporate such a methodological process?
With SMEs or small businesses, I think of it as a way of thinking about your business, even if you are in a small business; you want to try to be making decisions and running your business in a way that you are not creating things that are harmful, whether that is in your supply chains or in the type of products that you are using to make your goods or in the way that you are running your business if you are offering services. So, I think the ABCs are still a very useful starting point for any size of business.
Asking the question of what is the impact that we are having, overall, and where are opportunities to be doing more that is positive or to make choices in our business that are more positive, I think is a great place to start. Once that is on the agenda, you will find you are having different conversations and you can start to get more structured, about how does that link into our strategy, how can we be thinking about being more positive in our impact as we are developing the next wave of strategy or thinking about different products or services we might offer; how can we be linking sustainability practice into the way we do business and building in good systems where you can track that and actually be a way of being more efficient in the business.
It does not have to be more work, you can build it in ways that become a more efficient way of doing business and managing things for example, for some small businesses that are making products or delivering inside the food industry, waste is an issue, it is a cost issue, it is an effectiveness issue and monitoring that can be helpful to be more effective and efficient in your core business.
Can you address some of the biggest challenges that are influencing the adoption of the SDGs. What are some of the roadblocks that some people may face?
One of the key issues is the one we just discussed around the how-to question and how you can translate them across businesses of all different shapes and sizes; the kinds of ideas we were discussing are key to that. Thinking of it in the same way we think about accounting for our finances and organisations of whatever size they are, do broadly in the same categories of things they just do them to greater or lesser degrees of sophistication based on the size and scale of their business. Similarly, when we think about impact and when I am talking about impact, I am using that to describe the things that we might do that are positive or negative;
The reality is everything we do has an impact.
So, for organisations to become much more attuned to what they are doing, that is positive and negative, helps them to orient their business to do more that is positive. We need that kind of thinking to come into the way that people think about the SDGs. What we have seen is a much bigger wave of interest and indeed alignment with the Sustainable Development GOALS then we have seen with any other initiative of that type from the business and finance community, that is a real positive.
What we still need to do though is move away from something that people do or classifying things they were already doing, to asking questions about what we are going to do differently so that we are creating more net positive effects.
The reality is as we base into issues like climate and we see the interrelationship between impacts on their environment and what that means for people and for business in terms of natural disasters, in terms of other effects that we are dealing with, that some of these issues are getting to be quite systemic and they can really have an impact on not only the conditions for doing business, the risks of doing business like your ability to get insurance but ultimately, particularly when it comes to climate, it is an existential threat; educating ourselves around what are the things we can be doing, looking at the value chains in which we operate.
I think a key thing that is quite straightforward that sometimes gets missed is that wherever you sit in the value chain, whatever your type of business, you are a customer for somebody; you can then be asking for more sustainable products and for a higher level of sustainability in your dealings.
This applies whether as an individual, dealing with banks or your own superannuation and enterprise to everybody, even in business. So, using your demand power, as well as looking at the things you can do proactively in your business, is a great way to start driving change.
What is impact investing?
Impact investing is a term that was coined about 12 years ago to describe investments that are designed to enable activity that has a positive impact and that measures and accounts for that impact. The way I think about impact investing is that if we need capital to do investment, to be able to get things done, to grow businesses to make the world go round as we know that the financial system does; impact investment is a tool that enables us to invest in more things that are positive. It might be an investment into enterprises or businesses that are doing positive things in the world. It might be bonds that are raised by a government that is looking to implement policies that further the SDGs in their country, but it is the investment tool or the resourcing tool of things that are more positive and that includes things that are helping to make the SDGs.
This is still completely new information about how impact investing relates to the SDGs and the impact on both community members and the environment. Can you clarify for investors, what you mean when you discuss ‘meeting’ the SDGs?
If we think of impact as a term that encompasses what we do that is positive and negative, what we tried to do is shift more into the positive side of the equation. The SDGs are the most comprehensive roadmap that we have of the areas that need attention to improve things for people and for the environment or the planet. The SDGs are a great reference point for looking at investments that are more positive for investors who are seeking to engage in doing things that are more positive.
What we see is that there are opportunities for people to be engaging in impact investment. If you are an investor, or if you are seeking out the opportunities that are more positive – you expect there to be accountability or measurement about what is being achieved.
I think this is a logical segue into the importance of impact measurement. Can you please discuss some of the importance of measurement and some of the other approaches that are out there?
The importance of measurement is that unless we are measuring, we do not know if we are making progress. There are lots of tools out there, and we can come to the role of tools in a minute, but I think if we tried to do something more positive for the world or positive in our business, then a terrific person who has written a theory called Matt Friedman, he did a lot of work around results based accountability, so there are three questions you want to answer:
- how much do we do;
- how well did we do it and;
- is anybody actually better off as a result?
If we cannot answer those questions then it is hard to hold out that we are making a positive difference.
To your point around the stakeholder perspectives, I think that if we use a medical analogy here, it is like if you are a doctor and you are trying to cure a disease in somebody or help them feel better; it is the equivalent of asking the patient. You can look at the charts and you need those things to understand whether somebody is stable and other measures in terms of their vital signs but you can also ask the patient what they are experiencing. So, we need a combination when we are talking about impact investment or integrating the SDGs in businesses to be able to measure our progress but do it in a way that is useful and meaningful.
We can have measures that are scientifically accurate but do not give us meaningful and useful information. The things we want are useful information about how it helps us make better decisions in terms of business and decisions that we are confident, are making a difference in a positive impact for people and for the environment. If we have information that helps us to do that, then we also want to be able to communicate it to the world.
Whether it is people within our organisation to help them do more of what we are trying to achieve or people external to our organisation, either because it encourages them to deal with us or because we need to be accountable in terms of reporting or compliance obligations and we need to be able to say effectively what we are achieving and why.
One of the things that we promote at Insight Into Impact is the importance of measurement. Now that we have talked about management. Can you quickly sum up the linkage between measurement, management, and the sustainability process?
Absolutely. Measurement is a great tool and it is important for the reasons we were just discussing. If we want to be improving our performance, just like we do on the financial side of business or in other decisions that we make, we also want to be taking the measures to be informing what we do next. We want to be able to have the measures, telling us, are we making progress in the right direction, if not what do we need to prospect for; if we are making progress in the right direction; are there things we want to be doing more. One of the things that I find helpful is the impact management project I mentioned before which has what they call the five dimensions of impact. Looking at the measures in terms of;
- What you are trying to do?
- Who you are seeking to benefit?
- How much you are trying to do?
- What are your organisation’s contribution in the mix?
- What are the risks in relation to that?
We often do not talk about risk in this in the context of but there are always risks of unintended consequences or things do not quite turn out the way that we imagined or there are other dependencies in the mix. Using some good basic measures like that and starting to integrate that into your decision-making.
So, thinking about what are the issues here that we need to be able to make decisions about our next stage in the business strategy; what do we need to be able to operationalise; what do we need our board to understand and what should go into the papers for them so they understand sustainability as part of our operating context, and we have their input matter and authorising environment to be able to do more that is that sustainable.
The management process that makes sustainability part of how you do business is really cool because it then provides the tools for making better decisions and it also gives context to the measurement that you are doing. It helps to translate some of these things that are increasingly being required like reporting about sustainability into things that are useful value adds to the business.
You have designed standardised approaches to cover several areas along enterprises, bond, and private equity at Impact Strategist. Can you tell our audience how they can use these approaches as tools to make better decisions?
First of all, I need to give credit to a team. This is work that has been led by the SDG impact team at the United Nations Development Programme and what is important about that is, that it is the organisation within the UN family that actually is responsible for the integration and the implementation of the Sustainable Development GOALS.
Taking a perspective on what it means to be contributing positively to sustainable development if you are a business or an investor. So, these standards are designed to help people embed exactly that kind of management system that means that they can identify appropriate measures and use them to make better decisions within their context, whether it is within a business context or within the context of bonds or private equity that may be extended to other investment asset classes. It looks at the core things that people are used to dealing with in the business investment context.
Strategy – and the context in which you are operating; making sure that your strategy is fit for purpose and geared towards your sustainability objectives.
Management – how are you going to set the right measures absolutely but also managed towards the performance against those measures.
Transparency – what is going to be disclosed including your approaches to sustainability and how you are going to meet your reporting requirements and ensure that this system is set up to feed into the reporting that you need to do.
Governance – so that you have got the underpinning of strong governance around the organisation’s approach to sustainability.
These four core pillars are what businesses and investors use to, and what has been done through these SDG impact standards is relate these to creating more positive contributions towards sustainable development and the SDGs.
Can you detail what impact-washing is and its detrimental impact on communities, consumerism and investing?
Impact-washing or rainbow washing was an experience of greenwashing, is to do with putting a nice veneer on something to make it look more positive than it is. There is a whole spectrum of activity at the moment, some of which ranges from cynically motivated through to well-intentioned actions but where people are reporting more of the positives, they are doing but it does not give you a true picture of the whole effect of their activities through to some things that represent people still trying to make sense of the tools that are out there.
Obviously, what we are looking for is to be able to be given a much more transparent picture of their impacts on the communities in which they operate and on the environment. There are some really interesting developments at the moment, designed to incentivise them, one of which is the impact way that accounts initiative out of Harvard which is starting to show what the balance sheet of different organisations would look like if you weighted their financial performance for their environmental impact and for things like the diversity, the employment benefits and the conditions that they offer to their employees; people who are interested can see some really interesting work out of Harvard Business School on that.
The point being that without transparency, it raises the question, how do we know and if we are only disclosing certain aspects of what we are doing and not the rest then does not give you a true and complete picture.
In the same way that we expect people to report on their financial performance to give a true and complete picture and that is what directors have to sign on when they put out their accounts each year that these accounts give a true and fair view of the overall financial health of the organisation. What we are needing to work towards, is that we get a true and fair view of the organisation’s contribution, positive and negative to sustainability.
This is important because, for some companies, you can have some terrific programs that they are doing that make a positive impact but in the scheme of the whole of their contributions that might be relatively small and they might be doing some things that are quite detrimental; we have had some stark examples. This year, Rio Tinto which is an organisation that has been known historically of having good engagement with communities, have not been engaging effectively and allowing a situation to develop where they destroyed sites of great cultural heritage that were 40,000 years old and these are accidents you cannot take back. What is interesting is that it was investors who really put pressure on the company, even beyond the traditional owners and the stakeholders to say that is not okay anymore.
I think that most conscious businesses would want to really strive to be transparent if they could, however, again it comes back to this knowledge of how they could implement a process to demonstrate their accountability or transparency. Do you have a simple take-home checklist or guide that can help them in maybe a small and medium-sized business owner on how to be a little bit more transparent?
I think there are lots of good things to look at and you mentioned the Global Reporting Initiative before that is the reporting toolkit that has been looked to most often according to the most recent surveys on that. The key thing for people to start with is learning the ABCs of impact and these five dimensions that I mentioned. Looking at how they can implement that in their business, including starting to have a conversation in the forums where they make decisions. If it is a smaller company that might be the informal discussions that you have in the coffee room or around the board table about what we are going to do next.
Just putting impact on the agenda is a really key first step and it is something that I say to people; it is like if you buy a red car, you start to see more red cars on the road than you ever imagined that they were before and you start to notice the nuance of the different shades and sizes and. So, starting that conversation and I recommend that as a more powerful way to be thinking about sustainability in your business then a checklist. You can develop checklists and things. The problem with checklists, is that you start to work to the list instead of thinking about what that means for our business; what we can do differently; what does it tell us about what we do well; where we need to improve; they are the questions that I think businesses need to be asking.
Thank you so much, Rosemary. Is there anything else you would like to mention?
I would just like to thank you for the opportunity Marcus and to say to people, this focus on sustainability is going to grow. Not just because it is the right thing to do but also that there is a growing understanding and it is coming through regulators and other places, in terms of understanding the non-financial performance of organisations is important; consumers and communities are starting to vote with their feet, away from products that they say is more harmful, we go to Rio Tinto example, we have seen other examples in the community. There is still a lot of work to do. I think it is really in the interests of organisations to build their own understanding and ways that they can develop valuable tools for engaging through their business rather than wait for the regulation to come. It is already coming in the EU; it is going to come to places around the world; partly by necessity because once the EU regulates that is going to have an impact much more broadly. Most countries including Australia do business with the EU or get capital that comes through the European Union.
My advice would be do not wait but be on the front foot about this and that is where you will also be able to create more value for your customers and differentiate yourself rather than playing catch up once the regulation and the expectations start to come in your direction.
Such great advice and I think what is important is the return on investment that these small business owners will have. By having this socially responsible strategy by adopting these practices, they will have market growth they will have a great return on investment. The data is out there, and it has been confirmed so there is no reason to ignore it for any longer.
I think that is the next frontier of business and the next frontier of which we will find real value.
There is a lot that is positive that is happening and like many examples when people are faced with real adversity, they also show the ingenuity, look at how fast we have been able to start to develop vaccine technology. Look at what has been done in health supply chains, for example and the groups like the International Finance Corporation raising bonds that have helped to keep those supply chains open even into some of the lowest income countries.
I think sometimes it is when we have our backs against the wall that the human ingenuity comes out and I hope that this year there is a bill whether for a lot more of that and that we do not have to wait for the next crisis to see it grow. There are a lot of positive signs, Marcus, I am optimistic about the future and we have the tools now and if we can make more people aware of them and encourage them to engage, I am very positive that the future is bright.
Let us close on those great words of hope and thank you very much Rosemary Addis.
Podcast Series: Insight Into Impact
Podcast Session: Episode 5 – Sustainable Development GOALS et al
Recorded: December 13, 2020
Interviewer: Dr. Marcus Curcija
Interviewee: Rosemary Addis