Improving the UN's communications on sustainability

Wed, 11/08/10

The United Nations has a reputation for encouraging private sector organizations to practice sustainable development and pursue environmentally-friendly policies. In turn, many businesses now report on their sustainability performances through a range of UN initiatives including the GRI, CN Net, and the Global compact. So where, in comparison, does the UN itself stand on transparently communicating its internal efforts to become more sustainable?

A quick look reveals that many UN agencies are doing a great job at communicating the ways in which they are already incorporating climate change into their core work - through external programmes in the field.

UNDP and IFAD, for example, clearly spell out the link between climate change, poverty reduction and development in their web pages and give examples of how this is informing their work. One piece tells of UNDP retrofitting government buildings in Croatia to reduce their carbon footprint.  Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso, IFAD is supporting the use of more environmentally friendly technologies such as soil and water conservation techniques and agro- forestry.

The World Bank and UNU provide an even greater variety of content on their approach to sustainability including the World Bank blog, UNU’s e-magazine, interactive toolkits (e.g. the World Bank’s Climate Change Portal which provides climate-related data to the development community) and more. Emphasis in both cases is given to mitigation and adaptation programs, the value of indigenous knowledge and innovative financing projects.

In fact, the World Bank displays this information on a dedicated website for climate change, on which they are currently inviting feedback. Great attention is paid to organizing the content in a user-friendly manner, capturing the reader’s attention visually, and promoting interaction. The website is dynamic, engaging and provides a great example of how best to capture and disseminate information on a complicated subject such as sustainable development.

However, despite communicating well on their external sustainability performance, many UN agencies have room to improve when it comes to shedding light on how they’re doing internally. For example, information could be made available on how each UN agency is measuring and reducing its environmental impacts - including details of goals, strategies and successes to date. For many organizations the data and stories are there – it’s just the communications that is lacking.

UNISDR is one agency that has made a start. Their website provides an overview of their internal sustainability goals and performance, while setting out examples of specific actions they are taking (e.g. utilizing recycled paper, turning off office equipment at the end of the day, and increasing the use of video conferencing facilities in order to reduce travel). 

It would be great to see other UN organizations following suit, and presenting information about their own performance so that ideas and best practice could be shared – both within the UN and externally with other stakeholders.

That’s why it’s particularly encouraging to hear that there are plans afoot at the most senior levels to address this. At a recent meeting of the UN Communications Group, in Shanghai on 17-18 June 2010, it was agreed that all UN organizations will include a page on their sustainability performance on their websites. Here’s the actual minute from the meeting:

Section C, paragraph i

The UNCG supports “Greening the Blue” - the UN’s outreach programme for a sustainable UN operation - and will confirm the inclusion of “sustainability” pages on every UN organization and specialized agency website.

The decision by the UN Communications Group has been welcomed by staff throughout the UN system, and we look forward to seeing new sustainability pages appearing in the near future. You can rest assured that we’ll be highlighting all of them on Greening the Blue, so watch this space.