Introduction to Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were launched by the United Nations in 2015 as a ‘global framework for a sustainable future’, aimed at ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all.

Whilst set up to be implemented by governments, the private sector is fundamental to their success, particularly in the areas of finance, economic growth and innovation.

So business matters to the SDGs but why should the SDGs matter to business?

The clue is in the title. The fact is that the world – its environment, society, economy – in its current state, is not sustainable. Globally, we’re consuming more than the Earth can continue to provide, and we’re destroying our life support systems in the process.

That’s as bad for business as it is for all for us.

Hence, as populations grow, resources get scarcer and the social and economic disruption of climate change becomes evident, businesses will face challenges that limit their potential to grow or even survive in some cases. ‘Business as usual’ will not be an option. It will be in business’ own interest to address the social and environmental challenges that the SDGs encompass, or face a very uncertain future.

The case is eloquently summed up by Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman who said:

It is not possible to achieve long-term business success in a world which contains poverty, hunger and climate change. But can business really help drive a reboot of the current system? At Unilever, we think the answer is ‘yes’.

But how should businesses engage?

  • Firstly, using the SDGs as a framework for identifying and disclosing business risks and impacts is an excellent basis for improving strategic decision making, helping achieve better outcomes for the business, its customers, as well as society at large.
  • Secondly, minimising negative impacts and maximising positive impacts in areas that are material to the business and its stakeholders, reduces these risks. This results in a range of (often unanticipated) business benefits, such as investor confidence, customer loyalty, staff retention and efficiencies that cut costs for the business, its suppliers and customers a ‘win-win’ all round.
  • Thirdly, the SDGs can signpost business opportunity in the form of new products, services and markets. In a future that will demand different ways of doing things, business should do what business does best by innovating to provide environmentally and socially better products and services.

On this last and perhaps the most fundamental point, the Business and Sustainable Development Commission’s “Better Business, Better World” report estimates a $12 trillion per year business opportunity in new sustainable products and cost efficiencies associated with companies pursuing the SDGs.

But whilst the SDGs can be seen as a great strategic framework for futureproofing the business, their comprehensive nature – 17 goals and 169 targets – can present a challenge.

So how should companies determine which goals to engage with?

  1. Start by assessing which SDGs are material to the business and its stakeholders, identifying the most relevant SDG targets and determining objectives around these, with the aim of optimising business and shared value in the areas of biggest impact and opportunity.
  2. Prepare a strategy to ensure these objectives will achieve their intended outcomes, ensuring the necessary incentives and systems are in place and that these can progress, be measured, be assessed and be reported – but make sure this is aligned with corporate strategy and don’t assume that a CSR, HR or Comms dept. will be able to exert the necessary influence to deliver it, if production, operations and sales functions are not pulling in the same direction!
  3. Finally, there is the matter of measuring, managing and demonstrating attributable impacts, each of which have their own challenges, including how to collect and organise data, how to use data to drive performance and how to communicate and report progress – all of which are critical to implementing the strategy and realising the value.

Thankfully, technology is an ally in all of this, with modern computing power and the internet allowing data to be shared and analysed in large quantities, almost instantaneously. With the right software and set-up, performance against SDG targets can be centrally monitored, required improvements communicated to various business functions and overall progress readily communicated to internal and external stakeholders – an automated system, no less.

And yet so much data still collected on a spreadsheets, sent by email attachment and aggregated manually, with repeated iterations and report extractions. This seems to be particularly the case for social impact, for example, where organisations pursue goals through community investment, training or volunteering, resulting in inefficient or ineffective delivery of intended outcomes.

Technology is essentially about better ways of doing things, and web-based technology is arguably the single most significant innovation for advancing corporate sustainability and the SDGs, the full potential of which has yet to be realised. Quite simply, companies need to make better use of it, now more than ever.