In January more than 80 UK companies wrote to the Prime Minister about how sustainable development is good for business and asked her government to engage with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this blog Dominic White of WWF shares his views on her response to our letter and questions whether it's what we wanted to hear?

In January UKSSD coordinated a letter to the Prime Minister committing their support to sustainable development and asking her government to engage with the SDGs. You can read the original letter to the Prime Minister and find out more about why this is important in my previous blog. I'm pleased to say the Prime Minister responded to our letter and you can read the full reply here.

Did the response tell us what we wanted to hear?

As Kofi Annan is reported to have said, “we are all developing countries” and the UK is no exception. With the current state of poverty, malnourishment, resource depletion and pollution in our own back yard, it’s clear the UK needs a new, more sustainable development path that addresses these serious problems.

UK businesses have a big stake in this agenda. They can’t thrive where there is resource insecurity or social disruption in any form, whether from a sick labour force exposed to dangerous air quality or a transport system bunged up by flooding.

Put simply, sustainable development matters to the UK. That’s why so many leading businesses felt compelled to call on the Prime Minister for action.

Encouraging signs

It’s encouraging that in her reply the PM acknowledges that all government departments have a responsibility to deliver the SDGs. In particular, there’s a welcome recognition that all departments should “engage with businesses and stakeholders” to achieve this. We stand ready to facilitate this process.

Theresa May also highlights in her reply the critical work of the Office for National Statistics (ONS). There’s no doubt that if we’re to make further progress, we need to get better as a country at measuring the impacts of our society on the wellbeing of people and planet. The PM encourages businesses to engage in the government’s consultation of the ONS reporting framework, expected some time this year. We’ll certainly be giving our views.

Clarity still needed

But what’s still unclear from the government is any recognition that the SDGs are an unprecedented opportunity for the UK to travel down a more sustainable development path, and that this means rethinking some of the old models of governing and doing business. The government needs to show it understands the interconnected world we now live in and how the key to delivering the SDGs is policy coherence. For example, does it make sense to be subsiding the fossil fuel industry while bearing the costs of climate change?

If the Prime Minister’s commitment to be, as she writes, “at the forefront of delivering SDGs in the UK” is to be fulfilled then we will need to see strong ministerial leadership and suitable governance structures.

Change is happening

One thing the government can be assured of is that many UK businesses and other stakeholders are totally committed to this agenda. When a number of us gathered in London last week for UKSSD’s annual conference, it was clear that actions for a more sustainable UK are happening on the ground, in communities and businesses across the country. We need the government to play its part in escalating these positive changes.

At his address to our conference, DFID minister Lord Bates reiterated some of the Prime Minister’s letter. He also hit the nail on the head when he noted the universality of the SDGs: “Delivering the SDGs in the UK is not only important for people here at home, but as a DFID Minister, a strong story to tell domestically will put us in a better stead when speaking to partner governments around the world about what they are doing”.

So in summary, it’s an encouraging response from the Prime Minister, but lacking in detail. We’ll continue to push for more ambition, more commitment and more joined-up thinking on sustainable development. And businesses have a crucial role to play here. If you’re not already engaged with the SDGs, join the conversation and be part of the solution.

Blog written by Dominic White UKSSD co-chair (WWF)