Global goals, local action

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This post is the first in a series that will look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals and their impact on small and medium sized enterprise (SME).

Even from the perspective of the most enlightened start-up or SME, the highfalutin ideals of United Nations General Assembly must seem abstract and far-removed from the pre-occupations of managing day-to-day business. The global agenda of the UN, with its lofty ideals of world peace, social justice and sustainable development, must seem something you have neither little impact on, nor much influence over its success or failure.

The most recent overarching, global ambitions outlined by our international diplomats are the Sustainable Development Goals, detailed in what’s dubbed as the ‘2030 agenda’. Should these be any different?

In September 2015, the UN General Assembly agreed to 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specific outcomes to be achieved by 2030 that are both ambitious in reach and broad in scope. The SDGs set out a global framework to end poverty, reduce social injustice and ensure raised living standards are achieved in an equitable and environmentally sustainable way. The agreement expects action from all countries, regardless of the their relative wealth. Progress towards the SDGs will be measured through monitoring 169 targets.

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals
The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

The SDGs build-on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and address a range of themes, such as poverty, food security, health, inequality, gender, justice, natural resource management and ecological integrity. Importantly, the targets are interconnected; failure in achieving some targets will have an impact on the capacity or cost effectiveness of achieving others. In addition, the UN recognise the SDGs will not be achieved without global partnerships between governments, IGOs, business, academia and civil society; indeed, one of the Goals is for ‘partnerships’.

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So what does it have to do with business?

Such an agenda is definitely the concern of governments, NGOs and the multinationals that span the globe. If your company employs hundreds of the thousands of people and has a carbon footprint larger than a medium-sized country, the SDGs should be on your corporate agenda. But as a start-up or SME your business strategies are more likely preoccupied with cash flow, recruitment and the challenge of staying in business for the next 12 months, rather than thinking about how you might contribute to the ending global poverty by 2030.

“Business is a vital partner in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Companies can contribute through their core activities, and we ask companies everywhere to assess their impact, set ambitious goals and communicate transparently about the results.”

– Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations Secretary-General

But to discount the thrust of the 2030 agenda or to set aside how you can contribute to the targets for another time will do your business and your stakeholders and customers a disservice.

Why the SDGs should be considered in your business strategy

There are a number of reasons your socially and environmentally conscious company should be putting the SDGs and targets into a spreadsheet and critically mapping where your business intersects through its impacts or where it supports achievement of the global goals.

  1. Pressure will only grow on governments to demonstrate progress towards the goals. Therefore as national and regional/municipal strategic plans are reviewed, they are likely to more explicitly align with the SDG and targets and be backed up with legislation and regulation that manage the social and environmental impacts of your business, such as carbon emissions, waste and natural resource consumption.
  2. The linkages between the goals and targets are obvious and deliberate. Some sets of targets are strongly clustered, others less so. And so a lack of action in one area can mean achievement in another is more costly. Conversely, where action is strong in one area, the costs of achieving others fall too. Therefore, collective action can have ripple effects through the linkages. You are not too small to matter.
  3. Larger corporations are likely to take the lead in aligning their strategies towards the SDGs, meaning if your business is part of a supply chain it is likely to face tough questions on its performance and pressure to qualitative and quantitatively demonstrate solid social and environmental performance.
  4. Skilled employees—those who have plenty of options available to them—prefer working for companies with strong sustainability credentials. Exhibiting a commitment to the SDGs will mean you more likely recruit and retain the best employees. Engaging employees in achieving the SDGs is likely to get the best out of them.
  5. Consumers support the SDGs (even though they are unlikely to fully understand the commitment). A survey by PwC suggests 78% of consumers would more likely buy from a company supporting the SDGs.
  6. Finally, whilst there are numerous reporting and sustainability tools, the SDGs also provide a useful prism through which to view your company’s performance. The scope is broad, but in many instances it is relatively straightforward to monitor metrics and crosscheck your risk profile in terms.

Despite this, a survey of businesses by PwC has revealed only around 13% of those surveyed are currently mapping their strategies and operations to the SDGs. And where they are, they are only evaluating those where achieving both their business objectives and SDGs is congruent; mainly around the commitments to decent work, innovation and mitigating the impacts climate action (as it is often a financial liability). Most other goals, particularly relating to social justice and equity were not considered a priority.

So whilst the SDGs my seem distant and not directly relevant to your SME or start-up, Altus Impact believes as momentum towards their achievement grows amongst policy makers and governments, businesses that are already integrating their plans, operations and marketing around the goals and targets will be at a strategic advantage.

Mapping your business strategies to the SDGs is not a sustainability strategy in itself (the importance of which is covered in a recent colleagues’s post), but should highlight the areas of your work that are congruent with their achievement, but perhaps more importantly, where you are actively working against the Goals. This is the area of your business that requires reevaluation.

In the next article, I will look at some easy methods to map your business strategy and plans against the SDGs, in terms of the directness of the impact and whether that impact is either positive or negative.

If you would like to know more about how Altus Impact can help your enterprise navigate the SDGs then please contact us. Or if you would like to know more about how your SME or start-up can become a leader in environmental and social sustainability, you can apply for our Partnership for Sustainability scheme.

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