Launched with great fanfare a year ago, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) build on the success of Millennium Development Goals and go well beyond them. Like the MDGs, the SDGs have three interconnected objectives: ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity by 2030, all while tackling climate change. However, the SDGs were developed in a true public/private/NGO collaboration, taking multiple perspectives into account and addressing issues critical to developed and developing countries alike. There’s a call to action here, too: the goals specifically ask the business community to engage in solving global challenges. They also give companies a new way to evaluate their business models in a sustainability context.
A year out, companies are engaging with the goals in a variety of ways from pro forma to strategic – as well they should: according to research from PwC UK, 90% of people think it’s important for businesses to work with the SDGs, and 78% of people are more likely to buy from a company using them.
How companies are using the SDGs: a few examples
Unilever: Leading consumer packaged goods company Unilever celebrated the launch of the goals with short animated videos explaining how the company supports individual goals like clean water and gender equality. Later, it engaged employees in the process, asking them to make videos about what the goals meant to them on a personal level. By bringing employees into the conversation, Unilever creates a connection that makes the goals that much more embedded in the organization.
Coca-Cola Enterprises: Many companies, including Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), are mapping their existing CSR initiatives to the SDGs; CCE even shared its mapping in a sustainable development infographic. While this is valuable, it would be even more meaningful if CCE used the goals and underlying targets to inspire strategy, including future goals and targets. Not many companies are there yet, but it’s where leaders are headed.
Novozymes: For example, Novozymes, a Danish biotechnology company, describes its approach to connecting the SDGs and its business in its sustainability report. The company elaborated at last June’s Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego on how it mapped its company purpose, strategy and long-term goals to the SDGs. The rationale is that thinking about these goals now means it will be better-positioned to deal with a tougher regulatory environment and scarcity of natural resources like water. The company even developed a tool to evaluate its innovation pipeline against the goals.
Engaging with the SDGs
1. Spot opportunities to leverage the goals through mapping, engagement and communications, like CCE did.
2. Figure out what steps you’ve already taken throughout your value chain, in internal and external CSR initiatives and through strategic philanthropy. Are there opportunities to have the goals inform existing initiatives?
3. While the 17 goals are inspiring – and it’s hard to imagine anyone questioning them – the real substance of the SDGs lies in the 169 targets that set out how the goals will be met. So it’s important to dig into the details of each target and figure out what’s best aligned with your business and where the threats and opportunities lie. The PwC UK survey reports that more than 30% of businesses surveyed only plan to assess impact on some of the SDGs relevant to their businesses, while just 10% plan to assess impact on all relevant SDGs.
4. In your next materiality assessment process, leverage the goals as another lens by which to assess your material issues. The SDG Compass guide, created by the UN especially for businesses looking to integrate SDGs into strategy, offers step-by-step advice.
Looking to the future
Despite the high profile and flurry of activity around the SDGs, a recent, sober assessment by DNV-GL of the likelihood the goals will be reached concluded that eight of the goals are unlikely to be achieved in any global region by 2030. But the same report, which was presented to the UN Global Compact (UNGC), offers examples of how UNGC signatories are having an impact on each of the goals and sets out a challenge to business to raise their level of ambition and improve the odds of success.
Implementing the SDGs is not business as usual. It’s business for a sustainable future.