Besides the usual Trump furore, copious amounts of news emanated from the annual UN General Assembly session. Here are the most important headlines for the sustainable business leader, to ease your “fear of missing out”.


193 member states, thousands of people, hundreds of events, nine working days. New York is right now the epicentre of world affairs, hosting the debate of the general assembly from 25th September 1st October.

The Sustainian brings you the unsung stories relevant to any sustainable leader besides the usual Trump headlines that tend to overshadow current affairs; President Donald Trump being ridiculed for touting US progress during the general debate, his attack on Iran, France’s critique of US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the unexpected reconciling of the US and North Korea, or former president Obama speaking against protectionism and nationalism.

Your guide to this year’s assembly

Instead, we selected the 10 most important takeaways for the sustainable leader, listed in order of their value.

  1. Three years of Sustainable Development Goals, not much has happened

This year’s assembly marked the three-year anniversary of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The current state of affairs, with more than 1,000 days passed, is that not one single country is on track to fulfill the goals by 2030, as documented in an earlier issue of The Sustainian. Other analyses have followed suit, solidifying the sombre picture: World society is on a dangerous trajectory with surging inequality, alarming levels of carbon emissions, damaged oceans and critical over-consumption.

Secretary-General António Guterres

The need to accelerate action was also a key message from UN General Secretary António Guterres when opening the assembly: “We need action for peacekeeping, gender parity, financing for the 2030 Agenda, empowerment for the world’s young people, urgent steps to end poverty and conflict, and much else. I encourage you to tell your leaders to come to next week’s high-level week ready to be bold and ready to forge solutions for our global challenges,” he said. Read his opening remark here.

  1. Sustainable finance higher on the agenda than ever

This year’s assembly brought sustainable finance higher on the agenda than ever. A ‘High-Level Meeting on Financing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ brought key profiles together on the assembly’s opening day, to discuss the how to fill in the critical finance gap, needed to achieve the Global Goals. Among the participants were Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Foundation, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and representatives from business and financial sector such as Larry Fink and Bill Gates

In his remarks at the meeting, Secretary-General António Guterres called for extreme urgency: “The financing needs of the 2030 Agenda are immense. Globally, investments of US$ 5-7 trillion are needed each year to implement the Goals. We have made some progress in mobilizing resources, but more is needed. Much more…” he said. Read his full speech here.

Guterres announced that he will provide a three-year roadmap (2018-2021) which he will lead, consisting of actions and initiatives to escalate progress.

Read much more about it here and here.

Christine Lagarde presented the IMF’s estimates for what it would take for low-income developing countries to meet the SDGs – US$ 520 billion a year –  and Justin Trudeau announced as the incoming president for the next G7 meeting, that he for the first time will bring finance ministers and international development ministers together. As he stated, there is significant capital out there looking for places to invest. Governments should step up and de-risk and encourage capital flows to the projects that need it. They must urge investors to not look for where their investments can get a return in the shortest time, but where they can create the maximum positive impact.

  1. A new CEO guide to end modern slavery

The so-called “B-Team” initiative released a CEO guide to end modern slavery. In the guide, the team of prominent business leaders highlights that at least 40.3 million people are living in slavery today, and these victims are found in every country and every industry. It is estimated that 16 million of them are trapped in corporate supply chains. These numbers are higher than at any other time in recorded history, but they don’t have to grow.

Can we hope that eradicating modern slavery has now become a top priority for CEOs? At least we now have a guide from CEOs strongly encouraging other CEOs to take action.

  1. New initiative: Young people – the real leaders of today?

General-Secretary Antonio Guterres launched  a monumental initiative “Youth2030” that aims at empowering “the largest young generation in history” around the globe. The initiative will focus on opening new routes to involve young people and amplify their voices, placing their economic empowerment at the fore of development strategies. It will focus on training and jobs, work to ensure young people’s rights, and encourage civic and political engagement. As Guterres festively concluded: “Today is the start of a new era for young people at the United Nations!”

  1. Report: companies investing in renewable electricity outperform

A report presented at the REN100 Members’ Forum, revealed that there is now “a direct correlation between committing to 100% renewable electricity and achieving above-average financial performance”. The REN100 network is a business alliance uniting more than 100 influential businesses committed to 100% renewable electricity, working to massively increase demand for – and delivery of – renewable energy.

  1. Globalization wildly disputed

With the Trump administration succumbing to protectionism, many other countries spoke up against such a stance. At the general debate, China’s State Councilor and Minister for Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, emphasized that while every country is entitled to explore a development path that suits itself, economic globalization should not be a process for some to gain and others to lose.

“We should dare, dare to say things in a very bold way; [dare] to be bold, honest and frank.” – Maria Fernanda Espinosa, President of the UN General Assembly 2018

“International trade is complementary and win‑win by nature,” he said, warning against zero‑sum mentalities, unilateralism and protectionism “that will only hurt oneself”. Other countries followed suit and condemned the US.

  1. UN Global Compact: more engagement at executive level

A progress report issued by the UN Global Compact at the assembly revealed that 68% out of 1,130 responding companies from more than 100 countries reported that corporate responsibility policies and strategies are developed and/or evaluated at the CEO level. This is significant progress happening within a few years. On the down-side, there has actually been a decline in companies’ public disclosure of their environmental performance since 2010, as well as a decline in companies’ impact assessment of their environmental footprint.

  1. A more direct communication style?

Maria Fernanda Espinosa, Ecuadorian minister of foreign affairs presided over this years assembly – it’s worth noting she is only the fourth woman to hold that position since the assembly’s inception 73 years ago. Her remarks on her hopes and expectations prior to the convention were that “We should dare, dare to say things in a very bold way; [dare] to be bold, honest and frank.” With years of the UN often succumbing into inertia, her words signal a more activist voice coming from the UN. Are we about to see a more aggressive UN, sending stronger and more daring messages in a clearer language?

  1. Emmanuel Macron: Multilateralism is key and UN has neglected its role

A surprising, ardent criticism of the UN was given by French President Emmanuel Macron, who believed that the UN could end up as a “symbol of powerlessness”. As he explained in his speech at the opening general debate, the international community’s collective ability to attack crises like the climate crisis, gaping issues of inequality, and financial instability “has been hampered by the Security Council.” He stated that as long as “everyone pursues their own interests, such unilateral pursuit leads directly to isolation and conflict. The task is not to fuel tensions but to put forth a new agenda through dialogue and multilateralism. Trade imbalances can be solved with common rules that guarantee fair competition, not bilateral dealings.”

He also announced that France will increase its official development assistance by €1 billion from 2019 and its humanitarian funding will go up 40%.

  1. “New York, New York”

At a session called “Building Sustainable Markets” hosted by World Economic Forum, New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio stated that New York City is now the first city in the world to be held publicly accountable for reporting on progress on the SDG’s. Announcing that Helsinki had recently agreed to follow suit, de Blasio encouraged all other mayors to do the same: “If you can make it happen in NYC you can make it happen anywhere…,” said the NYC mayor, quoting Frank Sinatra.

Further guidance:

Here is the guide that lists all events.

UN Global Compact’s business leader guide, has compiled the most relevant events to business.

Read a comprehensive list of all updates from the assembly here.

Listen to each of the 193 member states’ speeches at the general debate:

World Economic Forum’s article about the UN General Assembly (2018)