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Business and the Sustainable Development Goals: what do they mean for you?

Business and the Sustainable Development Goals: what do they mean for you?
Published: December 7, 2016
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Francesca Burton-Project Manager, International Development Policy Unit, WWF-UK

In September 2015 the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - a new global framework of 17 goals and 169 targets to wipe out poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change by 2030. The SDGs will carry on the momentum generated by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),but with one fundamental difference: the principle of universality that underpins the framework. This means all countries are expected to implement the goals domestically, as well as work together to achieve the ambition of the SDGs globally.

The UK Government has officially backed the SDGs, which came into force in January 2016, and we still have some way to go on many of the targets. For example, research by Bertelsmann Stiftung shows that the UK is one of the worst performing OECD countries against target 7.2 on renewable energy and target 10.1 on the Palma inequality ratio.

It’s undeniable that the UK has undergone a significant shift following the EU referendum and there’s a growing sense of instability about our socio-political and economic world. The current context is also distracting us from the bigger and critical issue of climate change and related environmental challenges. The SDGs may offer us one way out of this, providing a unifying framework that translates across contexts and organisations.

How is this relevant to the business world?

The SDGs require a holistic approach involving actors from all sectors. Governments need to look to society, and business in particular, for help to achieve them. The private sector has an important role to play in implementing the SDGs, as complex challenges require integrated responses that involve knowledge and resources from all stakeholders.

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, has argued that business exists to serve society, and failing to contribute to the SDGs means failing society. In a recent article for the Business Commission, Polman outlines that there is a unique opportunity for business to recognise the SDGs as a driver of business strategies, innovation and investment decisions. Implementing the SDGs within your organisation can make business sense too. Research by Unilever suggests that 54% of consumers want to buy more sustainably, so improving product ranges or services in line with the SDGs might give you an edge over your competitors. Polman states that increasing numbers of businesses are seeing the potential of a more sustainable business model, recognising that the cost of inaction often exceeds the cost of action on issues such as climate change or inequality.

Whether your business operates internationally or domestically, the SDGs still apply to you. Aligning your business to the SDGs could help to increase employee engagement by helping staff feel connected to the bigger picture, giving them a sense of purpose and the feeling that they are making a difference to the world around them. There is a vital role for Learning and Development to play in educating and engaging employees with the SDGs. Thinking about how your organisation can integrate the SDGs into leadership development can benefit your business long term. At a recent UKSSD business roundtable, participants identified that having leaders who are fully aware of the SDGs and their importance was critical to successful implementation across the organisation.

Where to start?

The SDGs can be confusing, and we often hear that businesses struggle with where to start. Fortunately, there are many useful resources available, such as PwC’s Global Goals Business Navigator, which looks at your current business strategy and immediate impact and helps identify future opportunities. Continuing business as usual is not an option if we’re to achieve the SDGs nationally and globally, but it’s not essential that you start from scratch. You might begin your journey by looking at how you can effectively utilise existing frameworks through tools such as the SDG Compass.

While the private sector has a role to play, it can’t achieve change alone. Partnerships will be crucial for achieving the SDGs in the UK by 2030.

The UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) network supports organisations who are working to advance sustainable development in the UK. We are multi-stakeholders, representing organisations from the UK that span the business, civil society, academic and public spheres, irrespective of their interests, size or location. The network is free to join and open to all.

On 1st March 2017, we’ll be hosting our second Annual Conference at ICAEW in London.  We’ll be bringing delegates a packed agenda of talks and workshops as we ask our speakers and facilitators to question how we translate the ambition of 17 goals and 169 targets into transformative action in the UK.

Impact International is a partner of UKSSD. If you are interested in attending the conference, or becoming a partner of UKSSD, please write to us at [email protected].