Embedding sustainability is serious business

The UOW PhD candidate committed to implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Jacki Johnson has spent the past 25 years working in the insurance sector in a variety of executive and leadership roles and is a director of a mutual bank. Now her passion for sustainability has brought her to UOW.

In her time in corporate roles, Jacki has seen companies integrate social and environmental agendas within their business model - but not all companies, or agendas, are equal.  

“It’s not easy when you're a listed company and you've got the demands of the finance market, particularly the investment market,” she says.  

Jacki enrolled in an integrated PhD at the University of Wollongong (UOW) where she is researching how Australian companies can effectively deliver their commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

“There are two research questions forming my methodology: how boards of directors commit to specific social and environmental goals, and how do the governance practices of the board and the executive team change to make sure they deliver on those goals?” says Jacki.  

Currently in her third year, Jacki is compiling interviews with board members and executives of Australian companies about how their social and environmental decisions are made to answer her overarching question: how can companies create value for all stakeholders? 

“I have selected companies that are listed on the ASX 200, are headquartered in Australia and have committed to reporting against the SDGs. And finally, do they have a purpose statement and has their board charter changed to reflect all stakeholders? 

“Out of that, I have also mapped potential case studies to look at - who were our early reporters, (pre-2016, before the SDGs) and those after 2016. Then I am looking at media to see who had come under stakeholder pressure and who moved to report without any pressure at all.” 

What SDGs are companies adopting?  

In her initial research, Jacki has found a pattern of two SDGs adopted by most companies. 

“The most popular is climate, which is not surprising given there was a bit of a vacuum and business recognises the urgent need for action . If companies are going to attract capital internationally, they need to be seen that they are doing the right thing in terms of understanding the big transition ahead of us with alternative power and the circular economy,” she explains. 

“The second one is gender equality. Companies are recognising that equality and equity drives a good social environment for them to be able to do their business and get the support of their employees and their customers.”  

There is some criticism of companies committing to some SDGs and not others, specifically the lack of commitment to Goal 1: No Poverty. However, Jacki says the SDGs work together as one complete system and committing to one goal may have a flow on affect for others.  

“Goal 10: Reducing Inequality is a very strong commitment coming through in the ASX 200, as well as health and education – particularly from industries you might not think,” she explains.  

“The mining industry has very strong commitments to education. They want to make sure they have the workforce for the future of their companies. Within that, they are addressing things like a Reconciliation Action Plan, to create education pathways and employment pathways, which in-turn helps meet the goals of reducing inequality and no poverty.”  

Where to now? 

Jacki hopes the findings of her PhD will help directors and executives understand how they can create greater value, create more regulation of social and environmental commitments in the corporate sector, and overall create a better understanding of how companies deliver on these promises. 

“The outcome is really to inform board decision making. The Australian Institute of Company Directors has published quite a few practitioner articles about how the boards understand the stakeholders and how boards listen to the stakeholder voice. I want to contribute to stakeholder theory and the decision making,” she says.  

“When you have competing stakeholders, it gets very complex, and if you use a trade-off mentality, often no one gets anything. But if you can engage your stakeholders in a way where they are creating the value with you, then you are going to get a change. So, it's an educational piece for boards to say, ‘this is how we have to shift the way we have our role,’ as well as informing regulation and helping Australia lift our performance on the SDGs.”