Engaging with the SDGs can help us build a better future post-pandemic

This year marked the start of the 'Decade of Action' for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - an ambitious vision for a future that is free of poverty and inequality, and where we've overcome the climate and ecological emergency. But we're now facing an unexpected and more immediate crisis.

Engaging with the SDGs can help us build a better future post-pandemic

The personal and catastrophic impact of Covid-19 shouldn’t be forgotten but, for many in the sustainability community, conversations are already taking place about what happens next. What do we take forward after the pandemic? Or leave behind?

With their broad and cross-sector backing (not to mention the commitment of 193 governments) and compelling vision of a better future, the SDGs could help get the best out of any effort to 'Build Back Better'. But to do this we need to work out our roles and those of our organisations. 

We need to be ambitious

As we reached the '10 years to go' milestone there was a global conversation about how to build momentum and ambition for the SDGs. The UN had warned in its 2019 SDG report that progress was too slow and in some cases reversing. And in our 2018 report, Measuring up, we evidenced the persistent problems we face in achieving the Goals in the UK and the need for more action across all sectors.

We should learn from the welcome efforts of some businesses during the pandemic. The ways that they’ve supported their people, communities and our vulnerable, should be celebrated – they’ve certainly caused me to feel optimistic.

But if we stand any chance of achieving the SDGs this willingness to help society and go above and beyond what is ‘normal’ will have to remain, if not get bolder.

In his recent blog, Mike Barry explains the 9 steps to being better businesses post-Covid and highlights that the incremental approach to sustainability business generally take is caused by a focus on ‘what’ rather than ‘why’. This has been the common approach that business has taken to the goals: starting with a materiality assessment and setting some targets based on what is in their control.

Mike argues that this must now become an existential issue as businesses need to focus on the question of ‘why’ to meet consumer, government and investor expectations.  

What society and the planet need

Mike is articulating the attitude we should have had towards the SDGs all along because in order to answer the why, we need to start with what society and the planet need and the goals frame this for us. It’s unlikely a single organisation impacts on every single one of the 169 SDG targets, but we all impact (whether directly or indirectly) on more than we realise because of our interconnected world.

So, as we start to think about what we will leave or take forward after the pandemic, we can use the SDGs to help us focus on what society and the planet need in the future.

How do we get there?

The Goals require entire shifts in systems – particularly in our patterns of production and consumption – and this means working together, across sectors and industry, to create these shifts. No matter how amazing and ambitious your plans are you’re not going to end hunger or stop deforestation. But by working with others you could.

Partnerships and collaboration are key for creating the systemic change the SDGs need and these can have a variety of purposes. The more exciting aim to set standards and transform systems. Examples of this include the World Benchmarking Alliance or UKSSD’s Food Systems Programme.

Businesses are already working in this way in some areas, for example through the CE100, but these are often subject or sector specific. The SDGs call for more inclusive, system-wide collaborations.

By starting with what society and the planet need of us, we can set ourselves on a more ambitious trajectory for collaboration and switch-on SDG action. And it is only by working together that we will create a post-pandemic future that is fairer, just and sustainable.

Emily Auckland

Topics: CSR & ethics
Tags: | Materiality | Sustainable Development Goals
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