Why the SDGs are a big thing for SMEs

Did you know that the UK has adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? If you do, you are one of few - just one in 10 UK citizens know about the SDGs. Why do so few people know what they are?

Why the SDGs are a big thing for SMEs

According to a report from the Environmental Audit Committee, “the UK Government seems uninterested in raising the profile of the Goals, having undertaken no substantive work to promote them domestically”. In addition, a survey of more than 500 sustainability professionals, carried out by Globescan and SustainAbility, shows that more than 50% believe that progress on transition to sustainable development has been poor to date.

So, why should small and medium enterprise care about the SDGs?

The former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said about the Global Goals: “The new agenda is a promise by leaders to all people everywhere. It is a universal, integrated and transformative vision for a better world.”

To me, that feels pretty important, certainly enough to care about.

The SME impact

There is no universal definition of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). It is however generally undisputed that the overwhelming majority of private-sector businesses in the world are SMEs and that SMEs account for a very large share of world economic activity in both developed and developing countries.  Small and medium enterprises make up 99% of businesses in the UK and they make a significant contribution to the UK economy. In fact, the contribution that SMEs will make across the top 10 UK cities, are forecast to hit £217 billion by 2020.

Hence, SMEs are not a group of businesses to be forgotten or ignored when it comes to implementing something as important as the Global Goals. I would even argue that the SDGs can only be achieved if the SMEs are on board and can make a useful contribution.

Why should SMEs care about the Sustainable Development Goals? 

SMEs have a leading role to play in meeting the most “economic” of the SDGs; like promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment, and decent work for all (Goal 8) as well as promoting sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation (Goal 9).

We live in a changing world, where the enlightened consumer wants to make sure that she/he buys products with less packaging, less plastic, that has been produced and manufactured in a way which does not harm the environment and which pays the people producing it a decent salary. A world where people are increasingly concerned about the state of the coral reefs, of the number of bees, about the amount of plastic on deserted islands, about climate change and drought and flooding.

So, a sustainable vision for the world do sound sensible to me, and if your business wants to win tenders or win a corporate or government project, differentiate and attract loyal customers or appeal to an engaged workforce, like the so called Millennials for example, looking at the SDGs a second time is quite useful - even essential.

The SME challenge 

The biggest concerns of SMEs are usually cost and ROI (return on investment). Another big challenge is lack of resources and time. It is therefore very important to understand that where there is a saving in carbon emissions, there is a saving in cost, and your already existing staff will play an important role in embedding principles of sustainability into your organisation. People want to contribute to a better planet, environment and society.

There is also an argument that business unusual is a requirement for long term business survival. We need to change how we do business, no more business as usual, if we are going to tackle the environmental and social challenges that worries us the most.

Engaging with the Global Goals will provide a clear way to differentiate your business, to stand out. As I have already mentioned, they provide a longer-term vision – you don’t have to think up one yourself.

If the understanding and the want is there, the question becomes: how can we make the Global Goals accessible to SMEs?

Making the SDGs accessible to SMEs

Look at the 17 goals and see which ones, just the top two, three or so, that really resonate with you and your business and pick those to make a difference that matters. Engage your people in these discussions, to create engagement from the beginning. The size of an SME actually makes it easier to implement new principles, new ways of doing things, to measure your impact, that you will also see results quicker than in a big corporate organisation.

I have already mentioned the importance of SMEs in relation to the more economic SDGs and here are some other examples which could be applicable to you and your organisation:

Goal 12 of the SDGs is to ensure responsible consumption and production with a 2030 target to substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction and recycling, among others. By doing this, you will not only be playing your part in achieving the Global Goals, you will be saving money. Do a simple audit and see where money is being spent – what waste does it refer to and what can you do to prevent it?

Goal 3 is about good health and wellbeing. I think it is a no-brainier that healthy staff, are more productive staff – and also happier staff. Encourage staff to go for a lunch walk - All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking, as Nietzsche said. What other ideas do you, and your staff have?

Goal 2 is “zero hunger”. At a first glance, it is easy to think this is related only to developing countries but fact is that one in 10 school children go to school without breakfast and nine million people in the UK live in food poverty. If you work in the hospitality industry it is worth considering what you could be doing with any surplus food and prevent it from becoming waste. There are also cool new start-ups having developed free app’s connecting people with their neighbours and with local shops so surplus food and other items can be shared, not thrown away.

Goal 13 refers to climate action. There are recent reports about how we are already set for a 2C increase in global average warming. To contribute your bit not to overshoot this target, which is the world-wide (almost) agreement from Paris 2015, there are a number of small things you can do which added up with business partners, supply chain, competitors and clients will make a difference. For example; create and follow a Green Travel Policy encouraging your people to use more sustainable forms of travel, hold some of your business meetings via video or Skype, do a simple energy audit to identify how you can save energy. Did I mention this will also save money in your business?

The interesting thing here is that some of the actions you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, will also support other Global Goals; reducing waste to landfill (Goal 12 – responsible consumption and production), switching to renewable energy (goal 7 – affordable and clean energy), and so on. That is the beauty of the SDGs, they link up and your focus on one or two could very well lead to support of yet another goal.

Goal 5 refers to gender equality. One part of gender equality is similar pay for similar work. Unequal pay for men and women has been illegal for 45 years in the UK and yet still there is a gap of above 18% (this number refers to all employees, full-time and part-time). For full time employees, the gap was 9.4% in 2016. This is not huge - and, it is still there. As of earlier this year, employers with more than 250 staff will be required by law to collect data so they can publish their gender pay gap. If you are an SME, there is really no excuse to not adhere to the same principles. 

Goal 17 encourages partnerships for the goals, and as I have mentioned in a blog earlier this year (My 5 key takeaways from the frontline of sustainability), collaboration is what sustainability is much about. Maybe there is a local charity that you feel close to and that you could approach for a conversation on how you together can formulate action towards the Global Goals. Or a collaboration with someone who could use your waste as input to their processes? Now that could be akin close to innovation and yes, there is a Global Goal which touches on that too (Goal 9).

Your business - our future

It is easy to feel overwhelmed when you look at the Sustainable Development Goals and even the name sounds a bit daunting. I hope I have showed here that they are more accessible than you might think and worthwhile considering for your business. Even if you are an SME.

Want to learn more about how others are working to meet the SDGs and meet likeminded people? Join the SDG Network and come along to one of our events.

Carolina Karlstrom

Topics: CSR & ethics
Tags: | children | coral | Data | drought | packaging | smes | supply chain | Sustainable Development Goals | Top 10 | united nations | video
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