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The SDGs as a Global Language for Business

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency
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Socially responsible businesses have been buzzing around the edges of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for more than three years. However, there has been little attempt to reach a common understanding of what the goals mean for business. Until now, that is.

Last month, Bloomberg convened the first single-issue business summit to focus on SDGs. While there is still much to learn, the half-day gathering pulled a number of threads together and charted a path for reaching agreement on common goals.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The United Nations SDGs comprise a 15-year initiative that calls for global progress in 17 specific areas by 2030. This initiative grew from an earlier global anti-poverty initiative called the Millennium Development Goals.

The 17 SDGs combine lessons learned from that legacy program with a renewed focus on the environment.

As described by the U.N., the SDGs “recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and addresses a range of social needs including education, health, social protection and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection.”

The SDG challenge for business

The problem for business is that the SDGs measure and track progress by nations. There is no set formula for translating the 17 goals into pathways that fit neatly into other forms of corporate reporting.

Nevertheless, last month’s Bloomberg Sustainable Business Summit on the SDGs established some points of commonality. The tone was set by the host of the Summit, Lee Ballin, head of Sustainable Business Programs at Bloomberg. 

Ballin described the SDGs as a “roadmap for humanity.” Each one creates an opportunity for businesses. That opportunity lies in the gap between what nations hope to achieve by 2030 and the amount of money needed to reach those goals—$2.5 trillion, according to Ballin.

To be clear, few—if any—businesses can fit the entire slate of 17 SDGs into their operations. However, almost any business can identify and adopt SDGs that benefit their bottom line while also promoting global progress.

The nitty-gritty of the Sustainable Development Goals

That sounds simple enough, but the devil is in the details.

Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Imperative, described the SDGs as “spectacularly complicated,” “hugely complicated,” and “very hard to measure because the data is absent.”

He also cautioned that, for nations, the SDGs are not an “a la carte” prospect. Some of the goals are much harder to achieve than others, and some nations are already far behind with little if any prospect of catching up by 2030.

One solution for business, Green suggested, is to engage with more established platforms like the Social Progress Index“The Social Progress Index doesn’t look like the SDGs,” he explained, “but it measures the same concepts and it does have the data to back it up.”

How investors can help achieve the SDGs

Another source of guidance is the United Nations Global Compact corporate sustainability initiative. With 71 chapters globally, the Global Compact engages companies of all sizes with sustainable strategies, on their home turf.

Lise Kingo, who is CEO and executive director of the organization, noted that about 80 percent of its members are already working with the SDGs. Kingo attributed the interest to corporate leadership. “In 68 percent of the companies that picked up [the] SDGs, CEOs were driving the agenda,” she said. “They are preparing their companies for a future of transformative innovation. They are looking at SDGs as the ‘lighthouse’ to the world in 2030.”

Kingo’s advice was straightforward: She recommended that investors look at opportunities through an SDG lens. She also advocated for using green bonds or SDG bonds, and to steer investment funds into areas that are compatible with the SDGs. “That’s the low-hanging fruit,” she said. “It’s not complicated.”

Choose an SDG that works for you

Engaging with the SDGs on a strategic level was another common theme to emerge from the summit. Carmen Villar, vice president for social business innovation at the leading pharmaceutical company Merck, described how her company is using SDGs to identify its strengths.

In addition to drawing from a number of SDGs, Merck focuses on SDG 3, to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” That’s an obvious choice for a pharmaceutical company, but Villar cautions that businesses need to establish an action plan that engages every employee. She advised companies to ensure that their employees understand the SDGs.

Companies, along with their employees, also need to provide a toolkit that can be applied to new projects, and they need to be specific about their reporting.

SDGs and attracting talent

In terms of the benefits to the bottom line, Kathy Jackson, executive vice president of BCD Travel, articulated one of the most important benefits of the SDG approach for businesses: attracting the next generation of top employees.

Jackson explained that BCD Travel focused on five SDGs that answered the question, “Where can we make the greatest difference?” That question goes to the heart of BCD’s business model.

“The SDGs engage employees, attract new talent and develop careers,” Jackson explained. “Our five SDGs are relevant to our customers. They are part of our culture and part of our DNA,” she added. “It’s all about engaging employees, because you want them along with you on this journey.”

The takeaway on SDGs

In 2015, businesses seeking SDG compatibility had to start from scratch.

Today, businesses have more resources. They can rely on guidance from existing networks like the U.N. Global Compact. They can also deploy alternate reporting platforms like the Social Progress Index.

Watch for the SDGs to emerge as an effective planning tool. They enable companies to keep a finger on the pulse of global issues. They also steer companies toward actions that address the concerns of their customers, their supply chains and their employees.

Businesses can also think of the SDGs as one part of a growing toolkit that may include the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and other resources like the Corporate Reporting Dialogue.

All in all, engaging with the SDGs is another milestone for corporate social responsibilityThe agenda provides a framework for companies to look beyond the traditional model of corporate giving. Through the SDGs, businesses can act more effectively on key issues of the day, from gun violence and freedom of the press to renewable energy and climate change.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to transform our world:

GOAL 1: No Poverty

GOAL 2: Zero Hunger

GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-being

GOAL 4: Quality Education

GOAL 5: Gender Equality

GOAL 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

GOAL 10: Reduced Inequality

GOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

GOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

GOAL 13: Climate Action

GOAL 14: Life Below Water

GOAL 15: Life on Land

GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions

GOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal

Image credit: U.N. Sustainable Development Platform/Facebook

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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