Millennials don't trust businesses to tackle the SDGs — can Elsevier change that?

We’re working with the world’s largest youth-led organization to support sustainable development – and show that corporations can (and should) play a role

AISEC students
AIESEC members celebrate the success of World's Largest Lesson after reaching 2,000 students in just two hours. (Credit: AIESEC in the Netherlands)

The launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 acted as a wake-up call for politicians, nonprofits and businesses alike. It pushed them to ask the question “What can we do?” – re-shaping strategies and processes of institutions and organizations. Colleagues at Elsevier and our parent company RELX Group asked that question themselves.

On the eve before the UN adopted the SDGs, Elsevier held an expert panel and released an analysis: Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape. And last year, RELX created the SDG Resource Centre, an interactive platform that features multimedia content and research by our scientific, legal and business experts to promote collaboration that can influence society.

But who do millennials trust with the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals? Is it businesses, NGOs, governments, Elon Musk? Before getting to the answer, let’s take a moment to paint the bigger picture.

Research shows that the answer is not big businesses. Since 2016, a multitude of accusations have been brought to several corporations for doing the opposite of what the goals call for – like increasing inequality, causing poverty and damaging the environment.

YouthSpeak, a global insight survey with over 185,000 respondents that is run by AIESEC – the world’s largest youth-led organization – shows that millennials have lost their faith in businesses as positive change-makers for society. Instead, the report reveals, young people count overwhelmingly on governments (36 percent) and youth-led organizations (21 percent) as stakeholders that can lead the change. Outside of the report, AIESEC confirmed that the private sector had the trust of only 14 percent of respondents.

Ylann SchemmFor Elsevier, a business oriented towards empowering knowledge and helping institutions and professionals improve their performance in ways that ultimately benefit humanity, this lack of trust in the power of entrepreneurship and the private sector came as a surprise and a challenge. Elsevier Foundation Director Ylann Schemm said:

We know from experience that it is possible to make a focus out of contributing to the achievement of the global goals without being a nonprofit — and we need millennials on our side to drive that positive change. Only together can we grow the entrepreneurial environment into one that is inherently oriented towards sustainable development. The first step in this direction is increasing the trust of young people in businesses – as future CEOs and managers.

AIESEC recently brought to the Netherlands an educational project focused on the SDGs: the World’s Largest Lesson. Through this global initiative, volunteers visit schools simultaneously around the world on the same day to hold a workshop about the Sustainable Development Goals, teaching students about their importance and giving them the tools to create and commit to a personal action-plan. In the Netherlands, AIESEC reached 2000 students in just five hours. The first half of the day included a presentation from Elsevier on how businesses can contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.

Dutch students choose the SDG they care about the most and create action plans to achieve it for their community. (Credit: AIESEC in the Netherlands)

The presentation explored several ways Elsevier is using its resources and shaping its processes to tackle SDGs 4 (“Quality Education”) and 5 (“Gender Equality”), as well as to support the achievement of all the SDGs by supporting collaboration among researchers and ensuring the availability of data required to make impactful decisions.

Tjeerd Harkema, Local Committee President of AIESEC in Amsterdam and head organizer of the project, said he understood the role companies like Elsevier can play:

One’s belief in their own ability to contribute to achieving the goals is essential for the achievement of the SDGs. First, we need awareness of the goals, which was created through events such as World’s Largest Lesson. But awareness is not enough to act upon the goals; we need the right attitude as well. When businesses like Elsevier show the right example, it will help push people in the right direction, to ultimately contribute to the goals.

Georgiana-Simona Baciu, the author of this story, gives a keynote: "Achieving the SDGs – what can businesses do?" (Credit: AIESEC in the Netherlands)

Elsevier is also contributing to efforts to increase the diversity of research, its access and use all over the world with the development of Scientific African, a pan-African peer-reviewed open access journal. Owned by the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) and published by Elsevier, Scientific African publishes research articles across all scientific fields that can directly impact the life of African citizens. The journal offers a platform for researchers to publish papers relevant to Africa and make them immediately available at a low publication cost (NEF set the APC at $200, with hopes to subsidize the cost further).

“We hope Scientific African will prove to be a valuable resource for helping African countries achieve the SDGs,” said Marc Chahin, co-publisher of Scientific African at Elsevier. “Although this is an international journal, featuring research from the entire African continent and reaching a worldwide audience, it’s also local — the journal provides the opportunity for research from Africa to make significant local impacts.”

Additionally, the Elsevier Foundation has worked with the Organization for Women in Science in the Developing World (OWSD) for the past seven years to present the Awards for Early -Career Women Scientists in the Developing World at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This distinction aims to increase the number and influence of women scientists who make substantial contributions in key scientific fields, while also encouraging future generations of girls to break the norms and follow their aspirations. OWSD President Dr. Jennifer Thomson said of the winners: “These scientists are living proof that, if given the opportunities and support, women all over the developing world can become leaders in their field. They serve as role models for all young girls and women aspiring to achieve success.”

As a global information analytics business specializing in science and health, Elsevier is well positioned to produce benchmarking reports to show how research is contributing to the SDGs. Our report Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape, which we developed with, examines the status of sustainability science as a research field.

We work with our partners to encourage global collaboration in research, as well as providing access to research where it is needed the most through programs such as Research4Life. That is also why we are so eager to collaborate with AIESEC, whose members clearly understand the role businesses can – and must – play in supporting sustainable development.

As Harkema of AIESEC commented:

The work that Elsevier is doing, expanding the boundaries of knowledge for the benefit of humanity, is essential in tackling the (sustainable development) goals. Without objective and reliable scientific background, we would not be able to make significant practical progress in any of the goals, nor to track them. Objectivism and reliability are two core values from Elsevier, and to me, absolutely necessary to tackle the SDGs.


Written by

Georgiana-Simona Baciu

Written by

Georgiana-Simona Baciu

Georgiana-Simona Baciu is Open Science Manager at Elsevier. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester, UK, she moved to Amsterdam in 2017 to join Elsevier’s Newsroom as an intern. Georgiana is a strong believer in the power of volunteering and in communication as a tool to bridge the gap between sustainability research and policy.

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