We're seeing more SDG-washing, where companies use the UN SDGs logo and claim to be sustainable. How do you prevent this?
As sustainability has shifted from a “nice to have” to a “must have” corporate mandate, alignment with the SDGs has been positioned by many as a method to help boost corporate sustainability credibility.
On one hand, it’s progress that the private sector is improving its ESG (environmental, social and governance) performance and looking at its impact on the world. But at the same time, we are also seeing SDG-washing, where companies use the UN SDGs logo and claim to be sustainable. How do you prevent this?
As public opinion of business has shifted, especially in recent years, CEOs and boards now understand their responsibility is not only to their shareholders, but also to their employees, communities and the environment.
In theory, aligning with the SDGs fits within the broader responsible business movement. While a focus on the Global Goals creates opportunities to enhance a company’s sustainability strategy and disclosures, these goals were not specifically intended to fit within a corporate structure. They were developed as goals for countries, not corporations, so companies must be thoughtful in their alignment approach to support the broader national goals while maintaining a connection to their existing corporate and sustainability objectives.
To make alignment meaningful and impactful, engagement with the SDGs must be rooted in a company’s core competencies and should be pursued as part of a strategic sustainability platform, not a substitute for one. Sustainable business creates opportunities for innovation, helps identify and mitigate risk and creates opportunities for leadership, growth and new partnerships. Stakeholders are already asking for this data. Investors want ESG disclosures to inform them on risk management and growth opportunities from all aspects of the business. NGOs review ESG reports to understand how companies contribute to social and environmental issues they champion.
Without a strong sustainability strategy in place, aligning with the SDGs puts companies at risk for “goal-washing.” It’s easy for companies to get negative publicity from this popular movement when they do not put the processes and operations in place to accomplish these crucial goals.
Following the UN’s Economic and Social Council recent review of progress (or lack of progress in some cases) against the SDGs, it’s also important to remember new Global Goals will likely be put in place soon. With just over ten years left for this set of goals, having or creating a corporate sustainability strategy that supports core business and policy objectives is critical to ensuring consistency of operations and communications for decades to come, regardless of what the next set of goals includes.
There are several steps that corporate leaders can take to evaluate and execute to ensure aligning with the SDGs makes sense for the business:
Image credit: Global Goals for Sustainable Development/Facebook; Mary Mazzoni/TriplePundit
Jane P. Madden, Global Managing Partner of Sustainability and Social Impact at FINN Partners, has over 25 years of sustainability and social impact experience, advising clients across 30 countries to develop results-driven ESG strategies.