Three years have passed since the SDGs came into force on January 1, 2016 and slowly but surely, they are gaining recognition. Meanwhile, new challenges are unfolding and need to be addressed.
In our inaugural interview, SDGs Japan Portal speaks to Satsuki Katayama, who is promoting regional revitalization and gender equality as part of her role as the Minister of State for Special Missions in the fourth Abe cabinet. With such issues on her agenda, you could say that she lives and breathes the SDGs. We wanted to find out more about the significance and effects of these goals.
This is the second instalment of this interview. See part one here.
The SDGs as catalyst for a new business model
SDGs Japan Portal: You have been very active in regional revitalization and this involves many stakeholders, from local government to SMEs. What are some of the expectations that they have?
Satsuki Katayama: I have traveled to many parts of the country and I feel the interest in, and awareness of the SDGs is high, and that a number of prefectures and municipalities are especially proactive, like Kanagawa Prefecture for example. They have designated the cities of Yokohama, Kawasaki, Kamakura and Odawara as “SDGs Future Cities” and in October 2019 travelled to the UN to make their “Declaration on the SDGs Japan Model” at the General Assembly meeting. For SMEs on the other hand, we see the SDGs as an opportunity to reform business models. Many of these companies are struggling to survive, and in such circumstances have little room to think about the impact they might have on the environment or wider society. However, I think this is precisely the time to start. Why not start a movement now? In a sense, the SDGs prompts businesses to put their foot on the pedal and guides them in the right direction. This is not just applicable to SMEs, but also larger enterprises, who are just as prone to fall into the familiar, limited line of thinking that is only concerned with economic efficiency. But now creating a new business model framed around the SDGs is becoming a necessity and I believe any Japanese company that wakes up to this will strive to overcome the challenges of the present.
The SDGs and women’s empowerment
You mentioned that one of the three pillars of the “SDGs Action Plan” is about empowering women to become the standard bearers of the SDGs into the future. They say that the 21st century will be the century for women’s advancement, but how do you think the role of women will evolve?
Gender equality and women’s rights in particular are integral to the society envisioned by the SDGs and they are addressed across a multitude of SDG-related activities. For example, it is impossible to regenerate a rural area without the active participation of women. Many local governments attempt to control population outflow and increase the number of natural births. In some of these rural municipalities, some 70% of the student-age population leave in order to attend university in a big city, and of them only 40% come back. Women tend to get married and settle in the place they have relocated to. So, it’s no wonder the population is declining in these areas. Another important point is that these areas also need women in order to make them attractive places to live, for example to foster a healthy working environment, and an environment conducive to raising kids. If you want to increase the population, you simply can’t do it without women. Hence women’s empowerment is indispensable in promoting the SDGs.
Spreading the word
Lately, I’ve seen many people in the city wearing the 17-color SDG badges and I think that awareness of the SDGs has progressed considerably in the last year. On the other hand, some say that this hasn’t happened on the level of small and medium-sized enterprises. The 2030 deadline may be some time away yet, but it is not mean we should be twiddling our thumbs! What are your thoughts on recognition of the SDGs now?
Certainly, it seems that the SDGs are steadily taking root but at the same time there are overwhelmingly large number of people who haven’t even heard of them. There are now 60 SDGs Future City designations, but there are many places that have no knowledge of this.
The Keidanren (Japanese Business Federation) announced their “Society 5.0 for the SDGs” principles and there are calls to incorporate the concept of the SDGs into the “Corporate Behavior Charter.” I would like to see more organizations with clout on economic issues to weigh in on this. You also have the JC (Junior Chamber), an organization of young managers also holding the “2019 SDGs Promotion Forum” in Kyoto. But there are also many people who are already engaging in SDGs-related activities and just don’t know it.
There are many companies and local authorities with the attitude that, “well, we’ve been doing things this way for a long time and it works, so why start thinking about how to incorporate the SDGs now.” So, I think it is important for these people to understand what they’re really about. But I also think it’s important to foster a sense of ownership in relation to the SDGs, and to see them as one’s own. At this stage, we should be doing whatever possible to raise awareness.
ESG Standards for the Future
The progress towards the SDGs at present seems to be picking up speed, but it is still a crawling pace when it ideally needs to more of a sprint. Would you have any words of encouragement for those who are less familiar with the SDGs or have yet to act on them?
I agree. The great thing about the SDGs—officially called “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”—is that they were unanimously adopted by all 193 UN member states. In a world where entangled interests, sanctions and conflict are reality, there are few resolutions or goals that are unanimously adopted, aren’t there? In other words, the SDGs are the first truly common goal in human history.
The deadline set for the goals is 2030, but we can continue working on the SDGs for a long time to come.
Recently, there has been a lot of interest in ESG investment, which places environmental, social, and governance values on par with the usual investment criteria, being sales and profits. This activity is very compatible with SDGs. Under such circumstances, even small local businesses that have adopted the SDGs will be able to attract the attention of global investors and raise funds more easily. That is one of the great attractions of the SDGs.
Also, to put it a little inelegantly, it seems that many people still don’t understand the fact that almost any activity can help further the SDGs. For example, Hiroshima Prefecture, which has a strong peace agenda, promotes the SDGs under the umbrella of those activities. Speaking of local authorities, the ways they approach the SDGs may be as unique as the way they manage their cities.
The chances are, that if you have given any thought to the SDGs, you actually were already realizing them in some way. I think it is important for not only local governments but also companies and individuals to rethink the impact of their activities while being conscious of the SDGs. I advocate the use of ESE principles and see great potential for the SDGs when these three principles are combined.
The SDGS are designed to account for the economy, the environment and the future, and its mission is to leave no one behind. This is precisely the kind of framework we need. I hope to do my own part in helping Japan achieve them through our regional revitalization agenda.