Kate Harris, Good Environmental Choice Australia

One year has passed since the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDGs) were decided upon in New York. The core aims and objectives of the 17 SDGs are to eradicate poverty, reduce the effects of climate change, protect the environment and promote human rights.

The SDGs exist to mitigate the impact of “megaforces” on people and the planet as well as to help businesses stay in profit; these megaforces influencing the planet’s delicate ecosystem are further identified by KPMG in a recent study affecting the real cost of doing business.

So with a need to achieve so many objectives both locally and globally in a short space of time, this article takes a look at a few remarkable and determined female leaders who are already taking bold steps and examines what inspires them to take action. I asked them how they are leading the way to the building the future we want, and specifically about the returns on investment for doing business sustainably.

Although the federal government has explained why the SDGs should be applied to Australia, in the context of the UNDESA Questionnaire, there is little information about how they will be implemented. Underlying principles that guide the sustainable development process have been suggested but it is anticipated that the Working Group will flesh these out.

Romilly Madew, Green Building Council of Australia

The contributors to this article are Kate Harris, chief executive of Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA); Sue Lloyd-Hurwitz, chief executive of Mirvac; Anne Kovachevich, environmental and sustainable development leader for Queensland at Arup; Romilly Madew, chief executive of the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA); Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney; and Molly Harriss Olson, chief executive of Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand.

The foundation

When asked if these leaders had a definition of sustainability within their organisations in relation to their vision, Molly Harriss Olson said: “I always fall back on the Brundtland definition for sustainable development, as being development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” and this presents an excellent foundation stone for sustainable development in Australia.

Romilly Madew took it a step further by saying that “while our initial focus was on environmental sustainability, in recent years we’ve broadened our agenda, and are now driving a new definition of sustainable development, based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals”.

In their leadership role each woman is highly engaged in finding out as much as possible about the key issues around doing business sustainably, and why each is occurring. Indeed, Molly Harriss Olson told me that “These environmental challenges that we face that were really becoming very obvious in terms of whole biosphere impacts and biodiversity loss and all those issues that started to become prominent in late 70s and early 80s, were very much on my radar screen”.

Anne Kovachevich, Arup

This personal involvement was emphasised by Kate Harris, who said: “In my core, it’s what I am about. Being able to sustain our world and people; I see business is a mechanism and a driver to achieve that.”

Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney, added: “I’ve never believed you can separate the operations of the council, the cultural life of the city and the economy from the environment, so when I became Lord Mayor I was determined that sustainability would be at the heart of our work.”

The vision

Having a clear vision of where you want to go and being able to communicate it to others within your organisation and with your stakeholders is paramount to success. This is based on sharing core values and people being able to express what is important to them. The vision is powerful enough to stretch the imagination and is exciting enough so that people want to take the journey with you. When I asked about the vision, it was another common thread these leaders shared.

Sue Lloyd-Hurwitz told me about Mirvac’s “This Changes Everything” sustainability vision, and said it was much more than just a vision statement, it was a way of thinking, set significant challenges and empowered people to innovate.

Molly Harriss Olson, Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand.

Arup’s Anne Kovachevich said she wanted to “shape a better world, not only around sustainability but to make things better through design”.

“It is actually about making the planet better.”

Clover Moore confirmed that thinking, saying, “Our vision is to create a city that is green, global and connected.”

She said the City of Sydney had a “shared vision for sustainability, which is laid out in the long term Sustainable Sydney 2030 Strategy”.

“It is built on much earlier work outlined in the Brundtland Report of 1987.”

The returns on investment are financial, environmental and social

While the business case for sustainable development makes sense financially, the social and environmental benefits are significant and substantial. These benefits can be called “positive externalities” and are often not measured in terms of financial gain, although if you had to put a dollar value on them, the benefit to cost ratio is immense.

Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney

“We now save $7 million per annum through energy reduction and we avoid approximately $1.4m a year of landfill costs,” Sue Lloyd-Hurwitz said. “The Social Return on Investment study has created a better understanding of the ROI from our work in the community. We made $2 million of community investment in FY16”.

Molly Harriss Olson added that in her line of work “every dollar invested gives a financial return of $20”.

Romilly Madew said: “The environmental impact of our built environment has been demonstrated by our Value of Green Star research, which found, when compared with average Australian buildings, Green Star buildings deliver 62 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, use 66 per cent less energy and 51 per cent less water,” showing the considerable reductions in environmental impact that can be achieved.

And Clover Moore said: “Since 2006, the City’s greenhouse gas emissions have reduced by 27 per cent and emissions across our local government area have reduced by 19 per cent, despite strong population and employment growth in that time,” showing that growth and sustainability are not mutually exclusive.

Advice for other organisations in Australia

Sue Lloyd-Hurwitz, Mirvac

Speaking with each woman it was evident that we need to show more courage, be ambitious and more collaborative. These women are achieving success through using strategic, long-term planning, collaboration and whole systems thinking. They are taking steps to achieve their vision and are able to bring people with them to achieve those long-term goals, one step at a time.

Sue Lloyd-Hurwitz said to “be brave, do not wait for all the answers and don’t wait for government”.

Molly Harriss Olson offered the valuable insight that “the language of the Natural Step offers guideposts or a compass on how to achieve these goals”.

And finally, Clover Moore challenged us to be ambitious.

“Don’t let others tell you that your targets are unachievable.”

It is inspiring to know that we have great leaders, great case studies and great data to show us the pathway to achieving the SDGs in Australia and the potential to embrace sustainable development in this region of the world.

Johanne Gallagher is a Sydney based sustainability strategist and consultant.