Achieving SDGs through Business Achieving SDGs through Business
Bill Sisson World Business Council for Sustainable Development – North America
Bill Sisson
Executive Director - World Business Council for Sustainable Development – North America

Achieving SDGs Through Business

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  1. Canada is challenged with representing a clear vision and intentions for driving its climate, social and nature objectives.
  2. Leadership from both government and businesses, and collaboration between them, is pivotal in helping Canada achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
  3. It is becoming increasingly profitable for companies to be sustainable as investors start looking more closely at environmental, social and governance metrics.


CEOs and business leaders need to step up and make a commitment to achieving sustainability for their companies in order to guarantee their business’ longevity. This includes working on and improving their environmental, social, and governance agenda. Collaboration is key for businesses to be able to meet their sustainability goals, with knowledge-sharing and outreach being crucial to success.

What would you say are some of Canada’s strengths and weaknesses in progressing towards the sustainable development goals?

A little bit of background: we as an organization look at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as the roadmap for humanity, and so they really are an important aspect for both countries and businesses to take into consideration as part of their strategic framework. Canada has actually done a really nice job of framing the areas of SDGs into your own kind of country strategy, and implementation is clearly the next step in how different countries are approaching progress in different ways.

Certainly, COVID-19 has impacted that. In fact, COVID-19 in some sense has elevated some of the issues particularly around the social aspects of food systems and how they progress, but Canada is doing a good job in implementing the SDGs, with certainly room for improvement in some areas. Quality education is one that really rises to the top when it comes to the performance of Canada. There are other areas like addressing hunger, gender equality, innovation and infrastructure, and responsible consumption—we can go on and on but these are areas that obviously are going to want to be tended to.

When you look at COVID-19 and the slowdown COVID-19 has caused many countries, you are ranking twenty-first out of 193 in progress on your SDGs, and that is out of a piece of work that was addressing the Sustainable Development Report 2020. To put that in perspective, the United States ranks 31 and Mexico ranks 69, so when I think of Canada, in regards to the slowdowns and the impacts of COVID-19, you certainly have done very well in that sense.

The other thing I would like to say about Canada and the SDGs and what you are doing very well at is leadership. It is about having the responsibility and the accountably of working with other world leaders and country leaders in bringing them together to have directional conversations on how to get these big 17 Sustainable Development Goals attended to in the next 10 years. The leadership that Canada is exhibiting around bringing world leaders together—you have done it this year twice, once around the May timeframe and once in September—brings country leaders around the conversation of how we get at this as a world of countries. I am pleased just to see Canada is leading the charge on that type of work.

What are the main pillars of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and what do you think we should focus on?

WBCSD has been around for 25 years. We were the organization that was assembled to bring the voice of business into the conversation of sustainable development. Before that, it was civil society working with governments and the business voice was not at the table. We changed all that as an organization.

Over that evolution of 25 years, we have come to believe there are six economic transformations that are going to have to be in some sense addressed. The first is a greater and stronger Circular Economy. Canada has Toronto—Toronto is committed to zero waste as a city and it fits very much into the structure of how you enable that objective if you cannot enable a circular economy around it. That is a key program, and it is business, at the end, that is taking the transactions forward that enable that circular outcome. CEOs need to step up and be prepared to build zero waste into their business models but businesses also need to understand the way those transactions work. We are helping in both those arenas with our members through our Circular Economy program.

Climate and Energy goes without saying—it is all about decarbonisation and looking at the role of decarbonisation when it comes to impacting not only the climate but also nature, and Canada has a major role in that given the types of businesses you are in when it comes down to the business community.

“There is such a symbiotic relationship between the food we eat and the impact it has on the climate and on nature.”

I would like to talk about the Food and Nature program: you have a fairly large portfolio of food and agriculture companies, fisheries, and other types of areas of the food distribution system. Our work in food and nature is about rethinking food systems around the context of healthy people, healthy planet. There is such a symbiotic relationship between the food we eat and the impact it has on the climate and on nature, that we need to better understand how do we eat better while at the same time not doing as much harm to the planet that we do today with our food systems. Those are three really big areas. We also have an area in Cities and Mobility and we also operate in the social space, which brings us right back to the SDG question on what we call People. Also, how companies actually get appropriately valued for their efforts in environmental, social, governance (ESG), and sustainability writ large, and that is what we call our Redefining Value program.

How would you articulate Canada’s sustainability challenge overall?

Canada, like many countries, has the challenge of representing a clear vision for its intentions when it comes to driving your climate objective, nature objective, and social objective. Canada has done a really important job in framing that. I believe it was the Throne Speech earlier this month where it was very well framed in terms of the expectations of what Canada was going to pursue. Those signals are important for business and for business to understand that the Government of Canada is supporting them on the initiatives that they will then need to undertake.

“There is much more attention today on a broader set of stakeholders that affect business.”

That is, for me, what I see going on around the world: business responding to government leadership but also business representing leadership to governments. This is fundamental. It is quite interesting when you look at a little over a year ago, there were 169 CEOs who signed on to the Business Roundtable’s Statement of Purpose for a Corporation, and taking and flipping this whole notion of shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism.

There is a changing tide that business and government are going to have to interact with, and that is around how there is much more attention today on a broader set of stakeholders that affect business than perhaps we had intended to look at even as few as 10 years ago. Canada has the right formula for this, working in partnership with the business community, and you have a good formula for leading the way in North America as you are already doing with the SDGs when it comes to these really important but not so easy to understand and solve topics.

How would you define your Canadian members compared to other members around the world? What distinguishes Canadian business leaders on sustainability?

Two companies that jump right to the top of mind—who are WBCSD members today—are Maple Leaf Foods and Nutrien, both leaders in their industries and sectors. What I have found most rewarding is that those companies bring a strong commitment and a follow-through with that commitment. It is not just what they say they are going to do, it is actually doing it and demonstrating how they are doing it, and you can see this quite visibly in the sustainability performance that they put forward and represent.

This is a really interesting moment for sustainability. I come from the private sector—I was involved with a large multinational corporation in its sustainability programs for the last 15 years before I retired, and I can say I have seen a huge shift from sustainability being an office in a company to sustainability being a part of an integrated strategy the company will pursue. More Canadian companies are waking up to a sustainability objective and agenda. Canadians companies have an opportunity to look at what Nutrien and Maple Leaf are doing and get motivated by the business opportunity they are creating for themselves in this space.

“There is a huge swing going on right now in the investor community of looking much more carefully at the valuation of companies based on their ESG performance.”

Also, understand that there is a huge swing going on right now in the investor community of looking much more carefully at the valuation of companies based on their ESG performance. This is the wakeup call—it is the opportunity cost question: do you pursue or do you wait and see what the impact will be? I do not think it is any longer a time to wait. I do believe Canadian companies, like I said earlier, really have the formula with that interrelationship between the leadership that government wants to exhibit on climate, nature, and social issues, and how the companies can now drive that agenda through the business lines they operate.

If you had 30 seconds to pitch to a person or a group with power to drive more sustainable development in Canada, what would you pitch?

My pitch is to the CEOs . If you are a business that wants to be around for the next 100 years, you need to understand the implications of that objective and what that means in the context of your environmental, social, and governance agenda. We are here to work with companies that aspire to those big, necessary commitments, but they also need to demonstrate that they have a plan to get there. If you are going to make a net zero greenhouse gas emission target by 2050 and you do not know how you are going to achieve that, we have companies that are working with us today that can help you understand their practices but also understand your practices as a company. It is a collaboration that we create around achieving those necessary but important objectives that the business community needs to get to, so it is all about the CEOs for me.

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Bill Sisson World Business Council for Sustainable Development – North America
Bill Sisson
Executive Director - World Business Council for Sustainable Development – North America

Bio: Bill Sisson is the Executive Director for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development – North America. He has over 33 years of experience in the private sector and was a Sloan Fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He also holds a Masters in Engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Previously, he served as the Senior Director of Sustainability for United Technologies Research Centre, now Raytheon Technologies.


Organization Profile: The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is a non-profit organization seeking to bring businesses together to work towards a sustainable world. It is a CEO-led initiative, helping its member companies achieve sustainable goals. It is has a global network of over 70 national business councils, with 200 member companies across different industries totalling USD $8.5 trillion in combined revenues.