SDG roundtable: Five ways to move from ambition to action

Sustainability and corporate responsibility managers from a range of businesses across the country recently gathered in London for an exclusive roundtable hosted by edie and UL EHS Sustainability, which explored the steps required to take the lead on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In September 2015, delegates from 193 nations came together to introduce the 17 SDGs. Replacing the Millennium Development Goals, the global framework set a bold overarching agenda to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and justice, and combat climate change by 2030.

But, almost two-and-a-half years later, corporate progress on the SDGs has been mixed at best. On the one hand, awareness of the Goals has grown significantly, with more than 10,000 companies around the world having pledged to support the SDGs in some way. But myriad reports now warn that most companies have failed to move beyond initial planning stages to build upon an increased business awareness.

So, how can business leaders move from ambition to action on the SDGs? How can they drive engagement with their across their organisation? Should a company be looking to completely overhaul its approach to sustainable development in favour of achieving the SDGs, or is it a case of reporting on current approaches through the lens of the Goals? And when it comes to delivery, should a business be able cherry-pick the SDGs it wants to focus on, or ensure all 17 Goals are being worked towards?

Those were some of the key questions that edie sought to answer during the SDG roundtable last week. The event, sponsored by sustainability consultancy UL EHS Sustainability, brought together 16 industry experts to explore how and why businesses should take the lead on the SDGs.

Here are the five top tips that came out of the SDG roundtable:

1) Prioritise the most relevant Goals…

Setting global goals can be crucial for galvanising action. But, with the SDG agenda centred on 17 goals and 169 indicators, it can be difficult for businesses to know where to start. This was the general consensus among the roundtable participants, who stressed that, to benefit from the opportunities and risks presented by the SDGs, an organisation must first define where its priorities lie.

Former Pret A Manger head of sustainable business John Isherwood emphasised that businesses must remain pragmatic in a world of stretched raw materials. A targeted approach on the specific issues that have a material impact on company’s business operations will help to focus efforts, Isherwood said, and will therefore be more likely to succeed.

“For now, businesses should focus on the things they can make the most impact on,” he said. “Most businesses have limited resources to work on this, so they need to make sure that they are working on the areas they can contribute the most to.

“Having gone through that process, [an organisation] can choose four or five areas to prioritise – but at least then, the employees are aware that another 12 Goals exist.”

It is all well and good companies prioritising the Goals that are most relevant to their business, but understanding and reflecting stakeholder engagement could be just as vital for any business aiming to build public trust. Indeed, failure to do so could alienate a company from its customers.

Last month’s PwC report on SDG progress found that the sustainability priorities of citizens and businesses are often misaligned. While businesses tend to focus on the SDGs centred around economic growth (Goal 8) and climate action (Goal 13), the public’s focus is on broader social issues such as zero hunger (Goal 2), health and wellbeing (Goal 3) and no poverty (Goal 1).

Participants at the SDG roundtable agreed that there is a general reluctance among the business community to focus on sustainability areas they regard as on the periphery of the corporate agenda. This could pose a major issue for those businesses wanting to strengthen their brand and reputation with consumers, PwC’s research warned.

2) Get the board on-board with the Goals

Several roundtable participants noted that a major sticking point for sustainability professionals when it comes to driving internal engagement on the SDGs is gaining the support of boardroom executives, who can often erroneously interpret the process as a box-ticking exercise which offers little business value.

That is despite extensive research showing that investments into the SDG agenda could create competitive advantage. It has been reported that as much as $12trn and 380 million jobs could be generated by 2030 if the SDGs are placed at the heart of global economic strategies. All the while, innovative finance solutions are springing up to promote the agenda, with the World Bank issuing its first ever set of green bonds that directly link financial returns to performance on the Goals.

With this in mind, UL EHS Sustainability’s business development director Chris Saunby said sustainability professionals must not hold back on stressing the financial gains of SDG alignment. Saunby said that firms which embrace the SDGs can generate new sales, customers and value propositions, and also establish cost savings, better talent acquisitions and a more motivated workforce.

“Do we avoid selling the bottom-line implications of following the SDGs as a commercial benefit?” Saunby asked. “We are very good at selling the altruistic reasons for doing this, but there is huge commercial gain; whether it be through investment, recruitment or the purchase power of somebody choosing to spend their money on Patagonia as opposed to another brand, for instance.

“We sometimes pull back from wanting to advocate something like this for financial reasons. But we might actually be missing the opportunity for boards to buy into it.”

Saunby’s thoughts were echoed by Coca-Cola European Partners’ (CCEP) vice president of sustainability Joe Franses, who claimed there is great scope for innovative companies to open up untapped markets related to the SDG agenda.

“We need to be looking at the business opportunities,” Franses said. “Numerous opportunities exist for innovative businesses that can tap into markets and create new goods and services that will fulfil and meet some of these needs.

“That is definitely where the most exciting piece comes in. I am not sure there are that many businesses that have managed to get their head around that yet. We are still in this conversation about how we are supporting the goals and tracking, but actually this is the exciting bit.

3) Master the art of SDG storytelling to drive staff engagement

The roundtable was in agreement that a strong appetite to address the SDGs within some companies is being hindered by a lack of engagement and understanding by mid-management and the wider workforce. This is seen as a major barrier within the corporate sphere and was highlighted as such by those present at last month’s roundtable conversation.

Jez Cutler, head of environment and sustainability at construction firm Travis Perkins, has used the SDG framework for several years to map his company’s CSR activities. But broader engagement with the agenda within Travis Perkins has been limited, Cutler admitted. In a materiality-mapping exercise with Travis Perkins’ stakeholders, Cutler discovered that around one-third had never heard of the Goals. He has found that an effective tool to overcome this internal inertia is through simplified communication.

“What we’ve done is use the SDGs as a starting point and moved on from them because few people want to talk about them within the organisation,” Cutler said. “It’s about going back to language that everyone is comfortable using and familiar with, even though we are in a position to talk about the SDGs should we need to. It’s a secure position without actually using it.” 

Having the ability to translate SDG action into a compelling and relevant story can increase engagement with an increasingly environmentally-aware consumer base.

The art of storytelling presents a perfect opportunity to increase this consumer engagement, according to speaker and broadcaster Simon Cohen, who reflected on the extraordinary impact of the narration in the recent Blue Planet series on the plastics waste agenda.

Cohen said: “If you look at Blue Planet, one of the reasons why that programme resonated so much is because of the awesome storytelling and communication it offered. It’s absolutely necessary that within the private sector that the SDG framework is being used globally as the public-facing communications.”

4) Measure and track SDG progress to inform decision-making

While most firms include the SDGs in their corporate reporting, in many cases this merely amounts to lip service which fails to convert stakeholder aspiration into business action. This trend was illustrated in a recent UN Global Compact study which found that, two years on from adoption, more than a third of 9,000 businesses participating in the SDGs still hadn’t set any measurable targets against achieving them, while only 55% were monitoring progress.

The roundtable participants agreed that regular monitoring of SDGs can help to inform business decision-making and build corporate accountability. Some of the members commented on the importance of using credible in-house or third-party standards to report on progress toward their sustainability targets and the SDGs. Chemicals giant BASF, for instance, measures the environmental impact of its 16,000 products through its own ‘value-to-society’ assessment.

“It is important to show what it means and measure impact otherwise it is just a nice communication story,” BASF director of applied sustainability Talke Schaffrannek said. “If you just say that your company is taking action, it doesn’t really help. You need to explain by how much and actually measure it… you need to show that progress has been made to show stakeholders that you are moving in the right direction.

“Then, it becomes much more tangible when we are able to discuss the products with the product managers… then, they understand about how to differentiate the products around whether they are more sustainable or harmful. It becomes more tangible and more personal around the table.”

5) Collaborate and share best-practice to optimise SDG action 

Cross-sector collaboration is an area of opportunity that corporates are seemingly failing to capitalise on. Research shows that 70% of sustainability professionals are seeking to collaborate, but less than half have been offered any opportunities to do so. Meanwhile, the number of companies “actively involved” in collaborations linked to the SDGs has fallen to a third, down 7% from last year. 

But the roundtable contributors recognised that companies cannot address the SDGs on the own. The room agreed that partnerships between different types of organisations from the private sector, governments, multilateral organisations and civil society offers the best chance of seizing the opportunities that the SDGs present.

Organisations such as Forum for the Future and PwC are partnering with companies across the world to ensure that the combined activities on sustainability issues add up to more than the sum of their parts. The British Retail Consortium (BRC), meanwhile, is working with members to incorporate the SDGs into its ‘A Better Retailing Climate’ initiative, which highlights the progress and ambition of UK retailers in acting in a sustainable and responsible manner.

One of these members is department store chain Debenhams, whose director of corporate responsibility Caroline Haycock noted that coalitions and collaborations will become key enabling mechanisms to progress the SDG framework as the agenda advances.

“What will the SDG framework look like in five or 10 years’ time?,” she asked. “Who would have dreamt of even having this conversation about the SDGs five years ago? It’s that constant evolvement that is important to be aware of. This is about businesses taking one step at a time… this is why we need to come together to learn and share best practice around the SDGs, because often we realise that we are all in pretty much the same place facing similar challenges”

George Ogleby

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