Opinion: How business can change the world and make money

Davos: How to master the next industrial revolution
Davos: How to master the next industrial revolution

In the last six months, world leaders have made some big promises -- ending extreme poverty by 2030 and containing climate change among them.

Skeptics ask whether there's any real prospect of them delivering what they signed. They have half a point. The agreements are incredibly ambitious, and they'll have to be executed while navigating a risky and volatile global economic context.

Achieving these hugely demanding goals will require financial, human, and technical resources far beyond those of governments and international organizations. In financial terms, the new agendas will cost trillions.

Finding the money is just the beginning. Just as important will be a push to build education and health systems that are fit for purpose, to provide decent livelihoods for a growing global population, and to develop new urban and rural infrastructure that is underpinned by sustainable energy.

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In every case, the private sector has a pivotal role to play. Take east Africa, where rocketing levels of mobile phone access have unleashed one benefit after another. Mobile phones led to mobile money, which then unlocked access to savings, credit, even solar power. Meanwhile, new business models in India are lowering the costs of healthcare.

Back in Europe, "circular economy" thinking is dramatically cutting the resource footprint of the autos sector. And across the globe, businesses are stepping up to lead the transition to a lower carbon world.

These stories show how the world can build the future it needs, but they need to be amplified and replicated. That's why we are launching a new Global Commission on Business and Sustainable Development this week with other leaders of business and civil society.

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We will put forward a set of simple but powerful propositions about why the world's new Sustainable Development Goals provide the business opportunity of a generation -- and to map out how businesses can get involved and flourish even as the world shifts onto a different track.

The heart of our mission is to communicate a simple message to corporate leaders, governments and civil society: Business interests and initiatives to build a better world are pulling in the same direction.

The time has come to consign 'pro-business' and 'anti-business' rhetoric to history. Private investment is key to creating the jobs and technologies needed to lift people out of poverty and make progress towards the 2030 goals.

This is not about corporate social responsibility. Sustainable development should not be an 'optional extra' but part of the core business.

But we recognize too that our focus on business as the key enabler of achieving the goals will cause alarm in some quarters. Such unease is legitimate. Too often, business has taken advantage of weak governments to exploit regulation and tax law, secure preferential treatment, or trample on the rights of workers; too often, business has provided hot capital flows when what was needed was stable long term financing.

So as well as exploring new business models, we plan look at the social covenant between business, government, and society -- exploring both the needs and the responsibilities of each.

While our Commission will be short lived to jump start an overdue idea, we also hope we are growing the roots of a revolution. The source of that hope is not just the opportunity and the business case. It is also about the conviction that drove the negotiators who sealed the Paris climate deal and the United Nations agreement on the 2030 goals.

Paul Polman is CEO of Unilever, and Mark Malloch-Brown is a former United Nations Deputy Secretary General. They are launching a new Global Commission on Business and Sustainable Development, including the CEOs of Merck & Co, Pearson, and Investec Asset Management among others. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

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