Leadership Toward Greater Meaning

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As we hunker down to begin work on the 15-year roadmap for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by United Nations (UN) member-countries in 2015, we welcome the fresh emphasis across the UN on collaborating with responsible businesses in delivering sustainable development. There’s much to look forward to in terms of various sectors—governments, private enterprise, and civil society—working together toward solutions that would harness the full potential of what all the stakeholders, particularly corporations, can contribute to the development action plan.

The SDGs build upon the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expired at the end of 2015. The SDGs’ broader sustainability agenda picks up from where the MDGs left off and reaches out much further to deal with the root causes of poverty and hunger, and the universal need for development that will benefit all people.

Realizing this ambitious agenda will require support from all sectors. And now is as good a time as any for collaborative efforts, with businesses finding themselves uniquely positioned in a burgeoning sharing and solution economy that deploys new technologies and innovative business models to solve old challenges. Moreover, in the last decade, sustainability has moved up the priority agenda of business leaders tasked to shape their companies’ goals, and has preoccupied a growing number of social entrepreneurs.

Increasingly, business leaders have become a sort of social entrepreneur themselves, aligning aspects of the business with socially meaningful activities that are fulfilled through economic efficiency and entrepreneurial innovation. Today, both businesses and social enterprises are doubling down on fulfilling a social purpose in their activities.

Authors John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan (The Power of Unreasonable People, 2008) cite how social entrepreneurs have collaborated with government agencies, nongovernment organizations (NGOs), private foundations, or even big private corporations for resources and markets to carry out their social mission. Some, they add, have even ventured into startups in a continuous drive to innovate, refusing to accept resource limitations.

Their social mission drives them to create social change. Such entrepreneurs start their quest from social challenges, unlike their traditional counterparts who are driven by commercial value. In doing so, social entrepreneurs look at sustainable long-term strategies that will ensure change. They are also known for excellent navigational skills in difficult situations like lack of initial resources. They not only involve communities but also engage profit-oriented businesses to share in their endeavor. Social entrepreneurs, oriented toward inclusive and sustainable development, are thus natural collaborators. As observers have noted, the “social” part of their title is geared toward communities and societies while as entrepreneurs they represent capable sectors that wield much power, like businesses and governments.

Social enterprises have been on the rise in the Philippines. Rags 2 Riches (R2R), for example, produces and sells eco-ethical fashion and home accessories out of upcycled, overstock cloth, and indigenous fabrics. R2R assembles the bags in their own workshops, employing members of their partner-poor communities.

Messy Bessy, another example, has a straightforward branding message: "We clean. We green. We educate.” A manufacturer and wholesaler of natural, chemical-free household and personal care cleaners made by at-risk youths in the Philippines who receive skills, education, and mentorship to help their rehabilitation, Messy Bessy not only highlights its products’ green aspect and social impact, it works closely with chemists to ensure that its all-natural line is as effective as the next cleaner on the grocery store shelf.

Big corporations, on the other hand, have been implementing their respective sustainability programs over the last decade. As mentioned earlier, sustainability has become top priority on both the CEO and boardroom programs. Business’ three pillars are thus profit (making money), people (providing jobs and taking care of employees and community), and planet (committing to environmentally sustainable practices or products).

Michael Porter and Mark Kramer have discussed the impact of social improvements (environmental impact, supplier access and viability, employee skills, worker safety, employee health, water use, energy use) on businesses: “There are numerous ways in which addressing societal concerns can yield productivity benefits to firms. Consider, for example, what happened when a firm invests in a wellness program. Society benefits because employees and their families become healthier, and the firm minimizes employee absences and lost productivity.”

They add that the ultimate goal of corporations embarking on a sustainability program is creating shared value (CSV). Beyond corporate social responsibility (CSR), CSV focuses on economic and social benefits—more specifically, on value creation for the community and other stakeholders.

Thus to assure inclusive and sustainable development, the responsibility rests not only on the corporations, but on the collaboration of corporations, governments, NGOs, and individuals and communities.

A recent McKinsey study demonstrates the growing urgency of sustainability to business leaders: 36% of global CEOs consider sustainability as one of their top three priorities, and more than 10% of CEOs consider it as the top priority.

Arthur Tan, CEO of Integrated Micro-Electronics Inc (IMI), a leading global provider of electronics manufacturing services, said, "We should be able to provide not only profitability and financial growth but, more importantly, ensure that the people that are involved, the communities that we serve, and the products that we build are actually entwined in making the world a better place."

He added that in doing so, IMI creates meaning: "We improve lives because we see potential in our communities, and augment or build businesses that serve all of us."

Gilles Bernard, IMI president and chief operations officer, believes that corporations should go the extra mile to help poor communities. "We do this by engaging either in sustainable community development projects or shared-value businesses. The latter involves having in our portfolio profitable innovative businesses that propose solutions to social problems."

To read this entire article, which appeared in the October 2016 issue of SMT Magazine, click here.


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