What are the
Sustainable Development Goals?
The roadmap for a sustainable future
There is no planet B
The slogan, ‘there is no planet B’ is displayed on social media, protests and blog posts, driving home the message that we need to meet greenhouse gas emission targets. To do that we need to find new ways to heat our homes, stop using fossil fuels and ensure our workforce is skilled for the anticipated explosion in green jobs.
Research from Mintel, PWC and others indicate that consumers are driving this message home, but governments are slow in legislating, but increasing pressure and policy advocacy means the regulations will come and soon.
Sustainability though is more than action for climate change. It is about integrating sustainable development into economic thinking and growth. We believe in going one step further than Social Value, evolving ESG and going beyond net-zero, towards a truly sustainable future.
As Ban Ki-moon said, “Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth – these are one and the same fight.”
This is why at SDG Changemakers, we believe sustainable development is the pathway to the future we all want and why we use the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals as the framework or roadmap to achieve this.
What is the business benefit of being sustainable?
Sustainability is now mainstream and is about education, jobs, health, commercial viability, inclusive growth, and equitable society. It is about living well, within the boundaries of our planet.
It is a holistic, long-term approach in managing not only environmental risks but also social and financial ones. For a sustainable business model to work, the triple bottom line accounting process is used, which focuses on people, planet, and profit.
Key benefits to being sustainable are:
Enhanced brand loyalty
Increase competitive advantage
Increase productivity and reduce costs
Improve financial and investment opportunity
Minimise carbon risk and improve energy efficiency
Increase employee retention and recruitment
2020 and the beginning of 2021 saw a huge shift in understanding that being ‘green’ could enhance a company’s image and create strong brand loyalty among customers and other stakeholders. Consistently reported on by the large research firms, it was clear that changing consumer behaviour was impacting brand strategies worldwide. While greenwashing is an issue in some areas, an authentic approach to being sustainable can give businesses and organisations a competitive advantage, lower operating costs and increase profits.
For example, streamlining operations would make a company more efficient, conserve resources, and reduce operational costs. Minimizing carbon risk and improving energy efficiency places a company on the front foot regarding government regulations.
A Goldman Sachs study of companies considered leaders in environmental sustainability were shown to outperform the general stock market by 25%. While when it comes to employees, they are at the end of the day, consumers, and increasingly they want to work with companies who are proactive in social and environmental responsibility.
What are the sustainable development goals?
“We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women's empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all.” Ban Ki-moon
The SDGs supersede Social Value and evolve ESG. They encompass everything that is at the heart of sustainability, green recovery and clean growth. They go beyond net-zero and should be fundamental to every decision made by businesses, government and NGOs. It is about inclusive growth and opportunity, defining a green economy and shaping what a green-collar job looks like.
Implementing the SDGs will deliver new enviro-economic opportunities globally.
There are 17 goals, each goal typically has 8–12 targets, and each target has between 1 and 4 indicators used to measure progress toward reaching the targets. The targets are either "outcome" targets (circumstances to be attained) or "means of implementation" targets.
The Sustainable Development Goals or Global Goals as they are also referred to are:
SDG1: No Poverty
SDG2: Zero Hunger
SDG3: Good Health and Well-Being
SDG4: Quality Education
SDG5: Gender Equality
SDG6: Clean Water and Sanitation
SDG7: Affordable and Clean Energy
SDG8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
SDG9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
SDG10: Reduced Inequalities
SDG11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
SDG12: Responsible Production and Consumption
SDG13: Climate Action
SDG14: Life Below Water
SDG15: Life On Land
SDG16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
SDG17: Partnerships for the Goals
While the list might seem overwhelming at first, on closer inspection, it is obvious that the themes are interconnected, and as we have seen with the pandemic, bleaching of the coral reefs, impact on global supply chains and melting of the ice caps, an action in one part of the world has a knock on effect in another.
The SDGs have been criticized for setting contradictory goals and for trying to do everything, but as noted above, the realization that we are all closely interconnected is more apparent than ever.
As sustainability consultants, when we look at sustainable business models, we consider all the 17 goals, which can be grouped into social, environmental and governance themes. We explore how sustainable activities associated with the goals can be embedded in value and supply chains, bringing positive social and environmental impacts and economic benefits.
How can organisations contribute to the sustainable development goals?
One quick win for sustainable development is for organisations of all sizes to understand the SDGs and why they are important, then look at how they can operationalise the goals into their business models, ensuring key performance indicators are benchmarked and have achievable targets.
To help in this process, Professor Jeffery Sachs (a hero of the SDG Changemakers team!) and others identified six SDG transformations as the building blocks to achieving the SDG targets:
Education, gender and inequality
Health, well-being and demography
Energy decarbonisation and sustainable industry
Sustainable food, land, water and oceans
Sustainable cities and communities
Digital revolution for sustainable development
Sustainability must be regarded as central to a business's operations, values and mission, not an add-on, helping the global economy move from a linear to a circular model.
Communication is critical to this process, internally with staff and board members and externally across all stakeholder groups. Shifting the shareholder mentality to one of stakeholder is also crucial, along with influencing positive behaviour change towards sustainable consumption and production.
How do we measure impact?
While the SDGs themselves are simple enough to understand in concept and principle, measuring them can be more complicated.
At the macro level - the Sustainable Development Goals Index is a useful tool to explore. The Index uses complex formulae and the 247 SDG Indicators to calculate progress at a country level. The data sets used to derive these results come from many sources - for example, SDG 13 Climate Action; by combining satellite imagery, crowd-sourced witness accounts and open data, deforestation globally can be tracked.
As data is the lifeblood of decision-making and the raw material for accountability, it is crucially important that at the micro-level, businesses can track and report against sustainability-focused KPIs authentically, transparently and robustly.
There are numerous tools, frameworks and voluntary sustainability standards available to SMEs, social enterprises, corporate foundations and large companies; while overwhelming, the key is to access the ease of inputs and how meaningful and robust the outputs are to communicate with stakeholders.
As sustainability consultants focused on supporting SMEs, social enterprises and corporate foundations to adopt sustainable practices and business models, we are committed to net-zero. However we believe a broader understanding of all the SDGs and the interconnectedness of them all will help our collective efforts to reduce carbon emissions and create a sustainable future.