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UN laying down standards this week for responsible corporate behavior

  • Sustainable growth has been a growing concern for the U.N. and has become an increasingly popular investing style.
  • The U.N. Global Compact this week is issuing a set of standards for compliance and a blueprint for leadership that will provide further guidance.

UNITED NATIONS — Global companies looking to be good corporate citizens now will have a set of rules to follow courtesy of the United Nations.

Sustainable growth has been a growing concern for the U.N. and has become an increasingly popular investing style. Sustainable Development Goals have become buzz-worthy enough in the markets to merit their own bonds — a market that is small now but projected by one fixed income expert to reach into the trillions someday.

At this week's General Assembly, top U.N. officials and global dignitaries spent an afternoon discussing SDGs and how corporations can fit in, both by desire and design. Nestle CEO Mark Schneider complained at a luncheon Monday that while his company has done much to change the way it approaches business, there are only sketchy guidelines for companies to follow to be considered in compliance with U.N. standards.

"When it comes to our company, I feel really good about the level of commitment," Schneider said during a panel discussion moderated by CNBC's Becky Quick. "What we need is commonly agreed metrics and principles when it comes to sustainability. Without that, you will always have that free-rider principle."

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 19, 2017.
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 19, 2017.

On cue, the U.N. Global Compact this week will be issuing a set of standards for compliance and a blueprint for leadership that will provide further guidance.

Lise Kingo, CEO and executive director of the compact, said the guidelines will help codify what the U.N. is seeking from companies.

"The blueprint will give guidance on how companies should work in a strategic way, with the intention that they do it in compliance with the five leadership principles" the agency has spelled out, Kingo said in an interview with CNBC.com. The standards to be released Thursday give "the companies a really grounded understanding of each of the goals."

Generally, the U.N. is looking to businesses to help fight poverty, ensure equal rights and promote environmentally friendly development and practices. Kingo referenced 17 Sustainable Development Goals on which companies are measured.

Earlier this year, the World Bank issued SDG bonds that were linked to an index of 50 companies that were SDG-compliant. Scott Mather, chief investment officer for core strategies at bond giant Pimco, said during the discussion Monday that the market for SDG-based investing can develop into "the trillions" of dollars.

Interest has come "from Wall Street mainstream investors. We see it from pension funds, public pension funds, all the way down to small corporate entities and treasurers. There just hasn't been a good way," Mather said.

The U.N. agency is stringent when it comes to accountability; Kingo said more than 7,000 companies have been expelled from the compact's rolls. Companies that engage in weapons production, unsafe development and human rights abuses are the types that will get excluded.

With the new standards, companies will get more specific guidance on what is expected of them.

"They really enjoy the legitimacy of being part of a U.N. global initiative," Kingo said. "They ultimately want to send the signal that they want to be a good corporate citizen."

Correction: An earlier version misspelled Scott Mather's last name.