The key word at any conference or speech these days is ‘sustainable’, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are arguably one of the most influential ideas of our day. Indeed, who could possibly disagree with such well-intentioned objectives as improving health or the quality of education, reducing poverty or working towards peace, justice and a reduction in pollution.

Speaking out against SDGs – even only raising doubts about them – might therefore seem irresponsible. But if we want the ideas and objectives that lie behind the SDGs to succeed, we need to move beyond conference rhetoric.

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Corporations are criticised for a lot of things: for exporting jobs from the developed world and at the same time exploiting workers in the developing world; for withholding technology and for destroying jobs because of too much automation. But like it or not, it is the corporate sector which, via FDI, ensures capital inflows into developing countries, generates employment, raises skill levels and introduces technologies, which are the impetus for further development. It therefore makes perfect sense to include the corporate sector in thinking about how to develop those parts of the world that still have some catching up to do.

But in all this we must not lose sight of the fact that for corporations to survive, they have to generate profit. The mindset that it is somehow amoral to strive for profit, and that the SDGs are somehow an ‘obligation’ of the corporate sector, should therefore be cause for concern. If SDGs are merely used to apply pressure – moral or otherwise – potential investors might feel less inclined to get into the trenches in the first place. The debate on SDGs reminds me a bit of the pseudo-religious fervour with which some of the demands in the climate debate are currently elevated to unquestionable dogma.

If governments and NGOs have done such a sterling job, why do we then have a $2500bn SDG financing gap? And if we need the corporate sector’s involvement, does it make sense to rail against it? Admittedly, there is a marked difference between certain mining conglomerates poisoning large tracts of lands, and manufacturing SMEs or microentrepreneurs.

But as a business community we should generally insist on not being addressed any longer as greedy, exploitative economic colonisers. If we are in this together, at the very least, we should treat each other respectfully.    

Martin G Kaspar is head of business development at a German mittelstand company within the automotive industry. E-mail: martin.georg.kaspar@gmail.com