An interview with Joe St Clair – the new UK Director of the World Sustainability Development Forum

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An interview with Joe St Clair – the new UK Director of the World Sustainability Development Forum


Hi Joe. Thank you so much for taking the time to give an interview to ‘Private Goodness’. First tell us about your new appointment and new office in London!

I am very excited about my new appointment because it feels like my whole life has been leading up to this moment and I feel very honoured to have been asked to take on this vitally important role. The task is daunting by any standards but it’s a challenge I am happy to accept. I’ve been interested in world issues for as long as I can remember and my recent role as ‘Executive Director’ of the ‘Laszlo Institute for New Paradigm Research’ in Italy, has been a good preparation ground for this move to the WSDF-UK. I not only had the privilege of working with one of the world’s greatest thinkers on world issues, Professor Ervin Laszlo, but I also had the opportunity to meet many incredible people from around the world who are striving to make positive change. The Global President of the ‘World Sustainability Development Forum’, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, was previously the Chairman of the IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change) and is a highly respected expert on the climate and the SDG’s. We were together in Mexico City in February at a global WSDF conference and we started to sketch out our ideas about opening up a UK office of the WSDF, which has its HQ in Washington DC.

My first task was set up WSDF-UK as a legal entity and not-for-profit and then to find a London office in order to commence operations. I was fortunate to find a supporter of the WSDF in London who was able to offer me premises, so I’m now ready to get started on this important work.

In your opinion, are the SDGs something that may be interesting to smaller and medium-sized companies? If yes, why?

The simple answer is that every person on this planet needs to be interested in the SDG’s as well as organisations of every size from the global conglomerates down to local family businesses. The seventeen ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ are relevant to every single living thing on this planet and they are not ‘nice to have’s’ – they are about our long-term survival as a species.

One of the problems with achieving the goals of the SDG’s is that most people assume it is ‘someone else’s problem’ and not their own. There is a general belief that the SDG’s are something the UK Government has to deal with – or ‘Scientists’ who need to come up with workable solutions. But the truth is that the Government - and I’m referring to all cross-party politicians - are currently so focused on ‘Brexit’ or ‘staying in power’ that the SDG targets seems to have slipped down their priority list. In a sense they are powerless to make the significant changes to Society that are needed, and it is our cultural outmoded ‘belief systems’ that are holding us back.

I think that meaningful change will eventually come from the ‘ground up’ rather than ‘top down’. There are millions of brilliant and caring people that are doing amazing and positive things that are in line with the SDG targets and my job is to work with these visionaries to awaken the public to the real issues we need to face up to and address.

You were a Senior Executive with ‘Nationwide Building Society’ for many years. No doubt you had to implement strategies that required change - and change in culture particularly. Do you have any tips for companies that might need to adapt their culture for the SDGs?

There have been many corporate initiatives that companies have adopted over the years to try and address SDG related issues. I was involved in many such issues both at Nationwide and also during my 20 years as a ‘Management Consultant’ where I worked at Board level with organisations including Vodafone, M&S, DHL, Thomas Cook and The Environment Agency. The initiative most people will be aware of is called ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ or ‘CSR’ which tries to address issues like pollution, recycling, carbon emissions, car-sharing and environmental sustainability. At the time CSR was launched I was delighted to see this happening, but the reality is that most ‘CSR Managers’ are not getting the support they need from within their organisation - or it is not recognised as a ‘Board Level’ appointment but rather a ‘Junior Executive’ role. Some good things have been achieved for sure, but there is a long way to go.

In your question regarding ‘tips’ you have used the words ‘…adapt their culture for the SDG’s’ and you are spot on! This is exactly what is needed – a change in culture. Anything less is not going to make a difference. The SDG’s might seem to be 17 different topics, but in reality, they are all intimately inter-related and to solve them all in unison requires nothing less than massive cultural change. Putting a few re-cycling bins around the office might seem like a good CSR initiative but it doesn’t address sexual equality, mental health issues, poverty, toxic air and polluted water for example. A global cultural shift is needed so every single organisation needs to look at their operations from a ‘global sustainability’ point of view, rather than the old-paradigm focus on maximising profits and shareholder dividends. That mentality is holding us back.

2030 is fast approaching. Is there still time to meet the SDGs?

I have just been studying the ‘United Nations 2018 SDG Report’ which has only recently been published which addresses your question directly. There is a lot of great progress being made across the world on all of the SDG’s and this is hugely encouraging but sadly it is still not enough. We only have twelve years until the 2030 deadline and in my personal opinion there is not yet sufficient global momentum to achieve all the goals – but I hope to be proved wrong. In the Introduction section of the 2018 UN Report the Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, makes the following observation after summarising what has been achieved so far:

“With just 12 years left to the 2030 deadline, we must inject a sense of urgency. Achieving the 2030 Agenda requires immediate and accelerated actions by countries along with collaborative partnerships among governments and stakeholders at all levels. This ambitious Agenda necessitates profound change that goes beyond business as usual.’

I think those words pretty accurately sums up the answer to your question.

London is a great place to build partnerships. Do you see companies forming more partnerships with government and the third sector to work towards implementing the SDGs?

I think partnerships and collaborations is probably the only way we are going to solve our problems because united we are stronger and united we can achieve more. The current, but outdated and flawed, economic model of ‘competition’ is no longer valid in terms of achieving a sustainable future for our planet. ‘Co-operation’ is now the model that must replace ‘Competition’ and it requires a radical shake up of our economic and political thinking. Our ‘old-school’ mentality that has served us well since the Industrial revolution is no longer valid because the world has changed enormously. And yet we still cling to the old ways of thinking instead of waking up to the reality that our actions our slowly destroying the planet and ourselves.

Thank you so much for your time. Do you have one last message for companies that are thinking about the SDGs now?

Sometimes we need to look back to the past to find the context for our future. Many indigenous tribes have a ceremony that is broadly known as ‘holding the fire’ which is a metaphor for ‘keeping the flames of hope alive’. A good example is from the native red Indians of North America. The tribal elders taught that any major decisions must be made only after asking the question ‘How might the implications of this decision affect the next seven generations?’

Just imagine every single governmental or corporate boardroom decision following that simple principle and asking themselves: ‘How does this political, economic or business decision affect my children and grandchildren and the next seven generations?’ If we all started taking this approach I truly believe we may have found the answer as to how the goals of all the SDG’s can be realised for the benefit of all mankind, nature and the planet we call home.


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