From business as normal to walking the sustainability walk: the transformative potential of business

Updated: Sep 18



Businesses of all shapes and sizes, from start-ups to multinationals, ARE concerned with sustainability. In a PwC 2019 analysis (PwC SDG Challenge 2019) of over 1000 company reports, 72% mentioned the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 25% included them in their public business strategy, and 14% included specific SDG-aligned targets.


No doubt this is a very positive snapshot. Yet, it shows that as we move from statements to more precision the percentages plummet; it also leaves out the vast majority of businesses, especially micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) who form over 95% of global enterprises.

A new report from the global B Corporation puts a timely focus on this push for sustainability and the risk of stagnation if the needs and inputs of all businesses are not included. It shows how much engaged businesses have already achieved, and points to the areas that need the most acceleration if we are to achieve a more equitable and inclusive economy by 2030.


How are businesses performing in relations to the sustainable development goals?


Looking at the Key Insights report from SDG Action Manager which includes input from over 1700 global companies who have actively used the tools as part of their sustainability journey it is clear there are a number of insights to takeaway.


The report comes at a critical time – with the devastating impact of COVID-19 halting progress on virtually every SDG and forcing businesses to adapt their practices. To build back better needs strong and collective action and the private sector is a key player.


“At the same time, the challenges the world is facing are compounding, meaning business performance towards achieving the SDGs is falling further and further behind. With less than a decade to achieve them, it’s necessary to course correct, and business must play an essential role in accelerating progress.”

This report analyses companies who are already engaged, but it highlights some important trends relevant for all. It also reminds us that, whether measured or not, all companies are already having both positive and negative impacts on the SDGs.


What are the SDG priorities for businesses?


  1. Companies are most likely to prioritise Goal 1: No Poverty, Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, and Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production.

  2. The least engaged SDGs are Goal 4: Quality Education, Goal 14: Life Below Water, and Goal 15: Life on Land.

  3. Latin America and Africa place greater focus on Goal 1, while Europe and North America focus more on Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth and Goal 12: Responsible Production and Consumption.


What are the contributions businesses make to the SDGs?


The report tracks contributions across all SDGs.

  1. SDG 5: Gender Equity and SDG 13: Climate Action are the clearest to track against externally available data and metrics.

  2. Success is mixed on both and is largely influenced by external factors. Whether countries are strong or weak in these key areas, companies are NOT out-performing the baseline.

  3. However, African companies in the report outperform their peers on all SDG: averaging 56% across all compared with 30% in Europe and in North America, and with over 60% in key SDGs including 8: Decent Work and 5: Gender Equality.


What are the influences on business performance?

Companies tend to perform best within their internal operations. Breaking down the analysis to include other areas - supply chain, collective action, and business models – shows less focus and less success.

These areas are more challenging but will also achieve more impact – for companies looking to optimise and accelerate their impact these are the areas to prioritise now.

There is a strong correlation between SDG Goal Setting and setting – and achieving – business improvement goals. Sustainability really does drive profitability.


We can see that companies ARE making a difference, but that even for the most engaged this is not yet strategic and transformative.


Supporting those companies to identify what works and how they can shift the norms is a priority for us all. A more equitable, inclusive and regenerative economy is in sight – if we can focus and track efforts where it matters most.


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