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Three questions to Nadia Isler, Director of the UN SDG Lab

Nadia is the co-founder and Director of the SDG Lab serving as the leader of the team. The SDG Lab is a multi-stakeholder initiative that contributes to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is working with a diverse ecosystem of actors that are focused on delivering the 2030 Agenda, including nonprofit organizations such as B Lab Switzerland.

Nadia has a long career in international development with several years of experience in bilateral cooperation at country level and extensive experience in multilateral affairs within and outside of the UN system. She is also a member of the Economic and Business Forum for the Agenda 2030, initiated by B Lab Switzerland.

Can you tell us more about the SDG Lab and your priorities?

Nadia Isler: At the SDG Lab, we are using the unique and neutral convening power of the United Nations to intentionally connect stakeholders that usually wouldn’t connect, let alone collaborate, around the SDGs. We are driven by a multi-stakeholder and multi-sector approach to the SDGs and incubate partnerships that capitalize on complementarity of expertise. Take for example the work that we did around Building Bridges for sustainable finance. We were one of the founding partners of the initial idea and I know that Jonathan Normand has been promoting fiduciary enhancement and socio-environmental impact measurement standards on behalf of B Lab in that context. The main idea here was to halt the constant ping-pong conversations between stakeholders of different areas of expertise by building bridges between the finance and SDG communities so that they are incentivized to work together. The core of our work at the SDG Lab is to identify opportunities for collaborations on the SDGs, act as professional connectors to create “chemistry” between different stakeholders and help incubate meaningful partnerships. Cross-sector and multi-stakeholder collaborations don’t “just happen”. There is a need for intentional convening, curating and “hand holding” until partnerships are solid enough to further develop without support. All too often the narrative around “multi-stakeholder collaborations” underestimates the work that is needed for these dynamics to occur, and this is where the SDG Lab operates and adds value.

What is your take on the role of the private sector in helping to achieve the SDGs?

N.I.: First of all, the private sector is as diverse as the public sector. It can range from for-profits, nonprofits, foundations, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), family-owned companies to big corporations. Hence, their scope of action differs a lot too. The parameters that a multinational company has to consider are often quite different from the ones of a small enterprise. We need to be very clear that there is no such thing as ‘the’ private sector.

When focusing on the for-profit sector in particular, two main elements need to be considered: how they do business and what they produce. When you look at the way the company operates, you can question: is it aligned to the SDGs? For example, does it have equal representation of women and men among staff and on its board? It could be the way it manages its water and electricity supplies, and governance, the so-called Environmental-Social-Governance (ESG) related topics. This is the first area where changes aligned to the SDGs can happen

But the second fundamental question, which in our view goes much further is, what is the company’s vision, its end goal? What does it produce? And consequently, how does this align with the SDGs? For example, you could have a perfectly SDGs-compatible and aligned tobacco company that meets all the internal standards but that produces an end product that goes against the SDGs. This is what we often forget. When we look at the bigger picture and focus on what a company produces, we need to apply an ambitious SDG lens all along the supply chain and right until the end product.

Bearing in mind their heterogenous nature, actors of “the private sector” therefore have a key role to play on many fronts: as role models - or not - as job creators, and on the actual impact they have through their products and/or services.

What would be your advice for businesses that look to contribute to the SDGs?

N.I.: Our rule of thumb in general - whether we are speaking to the private or the public sector - is to diversify the people and the expertise when you are creating an SDG vision or strategy. To make sure that the voices that you don’t usually think of are actually around the table. We really believe in the power of diversity of voices. Not because it is the trendy thing - but because it is the most promising approach for truly sustainable solutions. For example, a for-profit business could bring in civil society members, academics, UN representatives and colleagues from other companies. In doing so, there is an intentional openness to being challenged and to potentially re-thinking the status quo by allowing other perspectives to weigh in. For me, the SDGs are a historical invitation to all of us to think and act outside of our comfort zones. The SDGs bring together all the different facets of the global challenges we are experiencing today and show the extent to which they are interconnected. The systemic nature of the SDGs therefore requires us to work with others—if not, we are doomed to develop solutions that only address one variable of the equation. It’s sometimes daunting to work with people who come from other horizons of expertise. It takes courage, as it may push a person or an organization to drastically rethink or re-strategize. It can be unsettling, but I am absolutely convinced that the end results outweigh the initial discomfort.


Are you managing a business and need help to shape your commitment for the SDGs?

The Swiss Triple Impact (STI) is a unique national program that allows Swiss companies of all sizes and industries to measure their contribution to the SDGs and thus improve their sustainability performance.

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