By Antonio Vives
Lately there has been a flurry of publications and events promoting and facilitating the contribution of businesses to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (1, 2, 3) . However, sometimes it seems like companies are doing more reporting than actually using the goals to drive business change.
Needless to say these efforts (and pressures) have a strong potential to stimulate action. They can also stimulate companies to impute old and routine activities, exaggerate their impact and twist their contributions to the SDGs. There is internal pressure on sustainability officers to find ways to relate their regular activities to the SDGs and report on them. It is becoming increasingly important to distinguish between legitimate contributions from greenwashing.
Based on an analysis of some sustainability reports and a few awards for SDGs contributions (with obvious greenwashing) we have distilled five criteria to assess the legitimacy of these contributions:
- Material. Contributions must be material (not in the Materiality sense), significant, they cannot be trivial activities that somehow can be related to one or more of the 169 objectives. Granted, something that may be material for a company may be trivial for another, but the contribution must be commensurate with the company’s capacity and power. All companies can report some energy consumption reduction or energy efficiency, but its contribution to emissions reductions must be commensurate with their environmental impact and their capacity to do it.
- Additional. Contributions must be in addition to what the company has already been doing before the adoption of the SDGs. It should not impute past activities. Nothing wrong in claiming that it has been supporting an elementary school or providing potable water to a community for the last 10 years, but this is not an activity undertaken explicitly to contribute to the SDGs. What else can it do from now on?
- Impactful. Contribution must have a tangible impact, measurable or not, but is must produce some noticeable change in the object of the contribution. What value is there in claiming that food leftovers from the cafeteria, or old furniture or old computers are donated? The impact must be reported in the context of the impact on the indicators developed to measure achievement of the 169 objectives.
- Contextual. Contributions must be related to the company’s objectives (in the Materiality sense), in the context in which operates and on the impact on its stakeholders, otherwise the contribution might be “bought”, to enhance reputation, to greenwash its irresponsible activities. Nothing wrong with philanthropy, but if it is unrelated to the business there is a likelihood that its claimed contribution to the SDGs is greenwashing. In any case, its impact and additionality must be questioned.
- Sustainable. And finally, the contributions must be sustainable over time. It should not an occasional contribution, conditional on the business situation. It should neither be opportunistic, to take advantage of the need for positive visibility, or to mask some irresponsible behavior. We do not mean that it should be constant or growing, but it cannot be ephemeral, it must be part of its sustainability strategy, otherwise it raises the suspicion of greenwashing.
These are not meant to be definite criteria, nor complete, nor that all must apply, they are merely a guide for the interested parties, but evaluating the reported contributions to the SDGs using these criteria one should be able to assess the likelihood of greenwashing. It is not enough to report a number of contributions, they have to have quality, not just quantity: must be material, additional, have impact, be in the context of the business and be sustainable over time.
Antonio Vives is Principal Associate at Cumpetere, a CSR consulting firm. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Stanford University.