In the three years since the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, companies of all sizes have started talking about their contribution, but what has that been exactly?
There’s a debate as to whether companies are using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as a way to conspicuously express their good moral values without actually taking action towards the goals. The SDGs were developed to make real progress on critical issues across the globe. Authenticity and genuine action are needed, but how do business truly achieve this?
At the fifth Anthesis reporting roundtable in London, reporting professionals from a range of sectors met to share their experiences of using and communicating the SDGs in line with their business objectives. They shared the challenges and opportunities they’ve encountered whilst trying to instigate change within the company.
To effectively contribute to the SDGs, sustainability professionals on the front line identified five main areas for action, summarised below.
Materiality, mapping and authenticity
The sustainability agenda is well established in the UK. Many businesses have long-standing sustainability strategies that are updated and refined over the years based on stakeholder engagement and materiality assessments.
So how does a relative newcomer like the SDGs, launched in 2016, fit in?
We were a little cynical in our title of this roundtable – Authenticity vs Virtue Signalling - a pointed dig at the businesses that map to the SDGs without changing anything. But maybe mapping to existing work is a good sign – the businesses have something to map to. They are already acting.
Authentic action on SDGs and mapping are not mutually exclusive – working within your existing strategy is authentic. Communicating this within the SDG lens provides a common language for stakeholders.
Mapping to the SDGs can also be a useful exercise. It can provide a sense check and highlight new targets and opportunities, which are essential to establish if businesses are to go beyond their normal remit and current activities.
Prioritising your goals
All the SDGs are important – together they unite and interlink to help tackle the world’s biggest social and environmental issues. But there is an underlying tension. How can you focus on them all? Which ones do we prioritise?
Cherry-picking means some goals, such as SDG 14: Life below water, receive less business focus. While others are naturally more aligned to business e.g. SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth or SDG 12: responsible consumption and production (UNGC Progress Report 2018).
There is always going to be goal prioritisation among companies, but larger businesses especially should try to explain their contribution, good and bad, to all the goals.
The scale of the goals throws up other barriers for engagement. It's difficult to quantify the impact of even the largest business, so the scale of the goals must put smaller businesses off, and it’s this that needs to be addressed and tackled.
Targets, targets, targets
We’ve mapped, we’ve prioritised…how do we quantify?
The country/national focus of many of the targets makes it difficult to adapt them to a business setting - they also create unexpected alignment and perceived gaps in mapping exercises.
Most companies seem to be retaining their own targets and goals. And who can blame them, when the SDG compass lists over 1,500 possible SDG indicators taken from GRI, CDP and other reporting frameworks.
What stakeholders want
Investors are interested in what businesses are doing on the SDGs and as a result CFOs are engaged too. Much of the mapping has been to meet stakeholder requirements. This has also thrown up another challenge – finding someone who can talk to investors convincingly about the broad spectrum of action a business is taking on SDGs, and the nuance of these issues.
While some investors are obviously engaged, it was felt that the interest of others was only superficial and, in general, business action on the SDGs isn’t influencing investment decisions…yet.
Beyond investors, the SDGs are a hard sell in the UK. Awareness is low and while consumers and employees may be engaged on some of the issues they don’t recognise the SDGs. However, the goals do resonate with personal aspirations and values, so provide opportunities for engagement from this perspective.
Catalyst to collaboration
While the SDGs may not be directly changing business action in the UK, they are still having an impact. They are opening up conversations within businesses, between businesses and with stakeholders.
Four years ago, no sustainability professional would have started talking about zero hunger or life below oceans, let alone set goals around that. It just wasn’t something mainstream businesses did.
The SDGs have changed that. They have given businesses the excuse to talk about things (and impacts) they don’t normally talk about. They have broadened the scope of sustainability conversations with investors and other stakeholders.
This is particularly true on the international stage. They have provided a common language for global organisations to discuss sustainability, which, historically, has often been led by local/national initiatives.
Conversations between business has also changed. The SDGs have sparked collaboration between businesses, such as Champions 12.3, a group from the food value chain, governments and NGOs coming together to halve food waste.
The SDGs are a long-term goal. And the way businesses interact with them will be too. So far that has been mapping priorities and opening up the conversation. As time goes on this will become deeper, particularly after 2020, when many companies’ current strategies and targets come to an end.
About the author
Alex Mckay is a Principal Consultant in the Strategy and Communications team at Anthesis. She has over 10 years' experience in the field, specialising in strategy development, communications and sustainability reporting.