What do the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals have to do with Business?

What are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals?

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a series of plans that will lead to a sustainable world if implemented. They have been agreed by 193 of the world’s governments and are used to direct policy in the areas of climate change, sustainable development, biodiversity, and human wellbeing. They are usually depicted as a series of coloured tiles.

Figure 1: The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Behind each of these tiles there are 169 individual targets that must be met to achieve a sustainable world1.

How do the SDGs impact on business in the UK?

The UK Government has agreed to implement the SDGs and we are already starting to see some of the targets appear in UK policy and legislation. The legal requirement for the UK to achieve net zero carbon by 2050 meets a target in SDG 13 (Climate Action) to ‘Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning.’ The UK Government’s waste strategy and their plan to develop a circular economy approach to the use of resources is linked to SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production). There are many more examples of other goals where the targets align with the operations of businesses such as Goal 7 (Affordable Clean Energy); Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth); Goal 9 (Industry Innovation and Infrastructure) etc. etc.

Any business, that is implementing a sustainable development strategy, will find many of the measures they are putting in place reflected in the 169 targets that make up the 17 sustainable development goals.

How are businesses influenced by the 17 SDG goals?

Forward thinking businesses and organisations are using the 17 SDGs to describe their sustainable development activities. A lot of businesses are placing the tiles, shown in Figure 1, in their sustainable development progress reports. This allows the green consumer to see at a glance how sustainable the business is. This is becoming increasingly important as consumers increasingly use a company’s environmental performance to make purchasing decisions (see my previous blog on Sustainable Development and Business: The Advantages of Being an Early Adopter).

The advantages of reporting sustainable development performance using the 17 SDG goals is that they are instantly recognisable and allow the interested consumer to make easy comparisons between businesses and brands.

 

Large companies such as Unilever have been using the SDGs in their environmental reporting for several years and see embedding sustainability in their brands as a way to achieve brand growth2. In 2016 Unilever found that sustainable living brands grew 50% faster than the rest of the Unilever business2. A look at consumer behaviour2 found that 1 in 3 people purchase a product with sustainability in mind.

For Unilever linking to the SDGs and embedding sustainability into their brands has reaped substantial financial rewards and increased market share.

At first glance the 17SDGs developed by the UN may not seem relevant to an individual business or organisation. However, forward thinking companies are finding that linking their environmental and sustainable reporting to the 17SDGs and putting sustainability at the heart of what they do, leads to financial rewards.

In my next blog I will explore in more practical terms how the SDGs affect your business and discuss some of the knowledge and tools that will allow you to put sustainable development at the heart of everything you do.

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Paul Beers

July 2021

 

Sources

[1] Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development [online] Available at: 21252030 Agenda for Sustainable Development web.pdf (un.org) Accessed 14/07/21
[2] Making Purpose Pay: Inspiring Sustainable Living available at: Making Purpose Pay: Inspiring Sustainable Living (unilever.co.uk)

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