'Time for a step-change': Research finds slow corporate progress on SDGs

Sustainability experts believe progress towards each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) has been slow, especially in the private sector, according to new research.

Momentum within the private sector is thought to be gradually increasing, as responses show that companies are beginning to witness material opportunities

Momentum within the private sector is thought to be gradually increasing, as responses show that companies are beginning to witness material opportunities

A study from consultancy firms GlobeScan and SustainAbility asked more than 500 experienced corporate sustainability professionals in 74 countries to evaluate the progress that has been made on each goal, and also to share insights into the priorities within their own organisations.

The results found that, in just under two years since the aims were adopted, society’s progress on the SDGs has been poor, with Reduced Inequalities, Life Below Water, Life on Land and No Poverty singled out by respondents as the area which achievements have been lagging the most.

GlobeScan director Eric Whan said: “Our research findings underline just how difficult our predicament is, and how much of a need there is now for new forms of leadership enabled by new systems and business models, redefinitions of value, and greater trust in leaders. It is time for a step-change before 2030 comes and goes.”

Growing interest

National governments and businesses are seen as doing the least to advance the goals. However, momentum within the private sector is thought to be gradually increasing, as responses show that companies are beginning to witness material opportunities, rather than feeling like they need to respond to the SDGs solely due to internal and external pressures.

Very few corporate experts mention philanthropic contributions or providing financing as a way to contribute to the SDGs, suggesting businesses may prefer to take a direct role. The majority of corporate respondents say their organisation is responding to the SDGs by developing products or services that will provide solutions that align with the goals.

Meanwhile, 35% mention pursuing public-private partnerships or multi-stakeholder collaborations to support the delivery of projects, and one-third claim they apply the SDG framework to help them set relevant and long-term sustainability strategies for their business.

"It is encouraging to see the growing interest of the private sector in the SDGs as well as indications of the business opportunities related to attaining the goals,” SustainAbility’s executive director Mark Lee said. “More than half of the survey's corporate respondents say their companies are developing or planning to develop SDG-related products.

“Many companies are also joining or launching new partnerships and multi-stakeholder collaborations related to the goals. All that said, we will need still more effort from business -- and other key players including government -- to achieve the ambitious 2030 sustainable development agenda."

Slow progress

The 17 SDGs were introduced in September 2015 – replacing the Millennium Development Goals - with an aim to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and justice and combat climate change by 2030.

But in the subsequent 18 months, research has shown that most companies have failed to move beyond initial planning stages to build upon an increased business awareness of the SDGs.

While the majority of businesses have been slow to implement the goals, corporate giants such as PepsiCoCoca-ColaSABMiller and Unilever have all mapped their sustainability targets against the goals that concern them the most.

Collaboration between the public and private sector will help to leverage innovative financial solutions that can deliver on the SDGs. As such, the World Bank has this month issued its first ever set of green bonds that directly link financial returns to companies performing to the standards and aims on the SDGs.

George Ogleby


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