In 2016 Costa Rica became the first country in the world to sign the National Pact to advance the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The agreement incorporated a range of stakeholders from across the country’s public and private sectors, each of whom committed to realising the lasting, structural changes necessary to achieve SDG targets.

As the global pandemic continues to highlight the need to build cleaner, more inclusive economies, growing numbers of businesses in the hunt for products and services are not just gauging prospective providers by cost and capability, but are also prioritising countries and partners that help align their operations and values with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

Karla González-Barrantes, commercial manager and partner at Cartago-based IT service provider Pertec Global Services, says Costa Rica’s reputation in this space is invaluable for attracting prospective clients.

“It is a very strong asset for your value proposition, partly because Costa Rica has this certain fame when it comes to sustainability,” explains González-Barrantes. “It definitely helps you to stand out.”

A hot topic

Corporates are adapting business models to invest in sourcing more sustainable products and services amidst growing legislative, stakeholder, employee and client pressure.

It is a development strongly in evidence in the country’s booming ICT services sector, with González-Barrantes witnessing a shift in priorities first-hand. “Multinational corporations will increasingly send you a request for a proposal which asks about the gender composition of your company and whether you have an environmental programme,” she says. “They have started to realise that these kinds of things are important.”

The UN’s 2030 Agenda draws major government and corporate focus to these issues. Foreign trade is put front and centre in recognition of its crucial role in stimulating the economic growth needed to promote sustainable development.

PROCOMER, Costa Rica’s trade promotion agency, has also put these values at the heart of its operations, reflected in its winning Best Initiative for Inclusive and Sustainable Trade at the 2020 World Trade Promotion Awards.

They are themes central to Costa Rica’s overall economic strategy – and nowhere more so than across its digital industries. “A consolidated ecosystem of human talent, technology and sustainability pave our way towards development,” says the country’s minister of foreign trade, Andrés Valenciano. “In it, technology leaders, life sciences giants, smart manufacturing innovators and environmentally committed multinational companies leverage our innovative capacities and thrive.”

Ambitious goals

The Costa Rican government endorses the idea that trade liberalisation of environmental goods and services can be a powerful tool for climate action and supporting sustainable development goals.

Costa Rica – together with a group of countries that includes New Zealand, Fiji and Norway – is currently negotiating the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability. Its goal is to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, encourage the implementation of voluntary eco-labelling programmes and remove barriers to trade in environmental goods and services.

Ultimately, says Valenciano, “we believe that the liberalisation for climate-related goods and services contributes simultaneously to two important policy objectives: deepening trade liberalisation as a driver for economic recovery, and enhancing environmental protection”.

In 2019, Costa Rica launched an ambitious plan to decarbonise its economy by 2050. This includes transitioning to a completely renewable energy system, increasing forest cover by 8% and adapting waste management systems to ensure maximum efficiency.

At the heart of these plans is a pledge to leverage technological innovation. “Trade in services is a key enabler for these kinds of technologies, from clean energies to services linked to the green building sector,” explains Valenciano. “Considering the high access barriers that trade in services still faces in many countries, we believe that negotiations under way in these areas could benefit local and global decarbonisation goals.”

The minister of foreign trade is also eager to point out that Costa Rica has been successful in attracting partners that want to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs. “In our view,” says Valenciano, “this is key to advancing broader policy objectives, bringing them to practice in a manner that is beneficial to all parties involved.”

Paving the way

Costa Rican service providers like Pertec Global Services are helping to bolster the country’s inclusive reputation and create an evermore progressive partner ecosystem. Having spent several years working at a US clean energy NGO, González-Barrantes was instilled with the triple bottom line way of doing business, measuring success not only through profit, but also people and planet.

This type of thinking is embraced by company founder Alberto Sandoval, and was a major draw factor for González-Barrantes on joining the organisation 12 years ago.

A top priority is making progress towards gender equality in the workplace. Around 50% of middle management are women, with concerted efforts being made to increase representation when hiring technical staff.

Costa Rica ranked 13th globally out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 annual Gender Gap Report, beating both the UK and the US, which came in at 21 and 53, respectively.

“When we open a technical position, only 0.5 out of ten résumés are women’s,” explains González-Barrantes. “Our software development manager is a woman and it is not because she is a woman – she is a great engineer. We promote hiring women, so currently they make up around 32% of our technical staff, which is very good for our nature of business.”

The organisation has taken significant strides towards building an inclusive workplace, putting people and education at the heart of policies. For example, two years ago the Breast Cancer Navigation Programme was developed to match breast cancer survivors with those undergoing treatment, creating a valuable support network for employees.

For González-Barrantes change starts with education, both for colleagues and clients, and she points to work undertaken around cancer awareness and gender politics. The organisation also carefully monitors its environmental impact and is currently in the process of obtaining the Carbon Neutral Plus certification, issued by the environmental ministry.

There are plenty of ways for employees and partners to contribute directly to this culture, from the environmental volunteer programme, which includes trips to clean the local beaches, to the social programme that started last year allowing employees to work with children from the indigenous community and provide them with guidance and materials for their school work.

These efforts and initiatives reflect a wider commitment among private and public enterprise in Costa Rica to engender lasting change. They will also prove increasingly valuable in positioning companies such as Pertec as partners of choice for a growing client base.

By fusing leading digital capabilities with values and culture committed to creating a better world, Costa Rica’s service providers are positioning themselves as long-term partners of choice.

The ‘new normal’ has created a space to reassess priorities and build an enriching relationship with those that are striving to play their part in taking a step closer to achieving sustainable global development. Costa Rica and its tech ecosystem are ready to help lead the way.