Seven top tips for aligning your business strategy with the SDGs

During a "power hour" webinar hosted by edie on Wednesday (8 May), experts from Hilton, Thai Union, Asia Pulp & Paper and Centrica Business Solutions advised on aligning business strategies with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Here, edie rounds up the key takeaways.

Seven top tips for aligning your business strategy with the SDGs

The webinar showcased specific examples of how businesses have aligned their green ambitions with the Global Goals

Since the launch of the SDGs in 2015, 193 countries, more than 10,000 companies and investors with more than $4trn in assets have pledged their support to the SDGs.

But as more and more businesses move to align with all or some of the Global Goals, recent research by KPMG found that companies are still struggling to achieve boardroom buy-in for action on them due to a lack of available metrics for tracking progress against their aims. Similarly, PwC has found that two-fifths of businesses are still failing to engage meaningfully with the SDGs.

In other words, despite recent studies suggesting 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, firms the wider business community are largely still struggling to develop and implement a holistic and embedded approach to the Global Goals.

In a bid to help sustainability professionals overcome their SDG challenges, edie this week hosted an hour-long webinar showcasing best-practice examples of how businesses have aligned their strategies and launched new initiatives tailored towards achieving some – or all – of the SDGs.


Hosted in association with Centrica Business Solutions and now available on demand, this interactive webinar heard from some of the experts who are seizing the opportunities offered by the SDGs and in overcoming the global social and environmental challenges they spotlight.

During the webinar, Hilton’s director of CR Sylvia Low, Thai Union’s global director of sustainability Darian McBain, Asia Pulp & Paper’s director of sustainability and stakeholder engagement Europe Liz Wilks, Centrica Business Solutions’ director of responsible business operations Andrea Barrett and Centrica Business Solutions’ distributed energy sales manager Andrew Donald outlined how businesses of any size and in any sector can begin their journey to SDG alignment or improve their existing approach to the Global Goals. Here, edie rounds up the speakers’ key takeaways.

1) Choose your battles wisely

All of the speakers were keen to emphasise the fact that their business had not chosen to adopt all 17 sweeping Global Goals and the 239 targets which sit underneath them.

Doing so, they concurred, would be too lengthy and expensive, and could also prevent their organisation from honing in on areas where they could lead a transformational change.

Thai Union, for example, has chosen to prioritise SDG 2, Zero Hunger; SDG 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth and SDG 14, Life Below Water.

“Obviously, the 17 Goals are a lot, and all of them have relevance in some way, but we took the approach of choosing a few which are particularly relevant to Thai Union and its global businesses,” McBain said.

“That’s not to say that some of the others aren’t important – but having those that we highlighted helped as an engagement tool with our own staff and helped us focus on which progress to prioritise, based on how we could make the greatest change.”

2) Start with materiality

Hilton’s Low explained that the company was only able to develop its SDG-aligned Travel With Purpose Strategy, which sets out 23 sweeping sustainability goals through to 2030, as a result of “ongoing and repeated materiality assessments”.

The hotelier carried out its first materiality assessment in 2010 and built upon it with a supply chain map and a human rights impact assessment after the SDGs were unveiled, she explained.

Similarly, Asia Pulp & Paper’s current sustainability strategy was developed by “overlaying” materiality information onto its previous framework, according to Wilks.

3) Avoid short-termism

The fact that the SDGs offer a vision of what a sustainable future could look like in 2030 should not be neglected and can be used to help any organisation take a longer-term approach to sustainability, Asia Pulp & Paper’s Wilks argued.

While firms of all sizes are likely to revisit and update their sustainability targets within the next decade or so, she explained that the SDGs could help to “simplify” this process and encourage organisations to question whether their actions and impacts are aligned with best practice globally.

“The achievement of these kinds of goals won’t happen overnight, so it’s important to create a long-term goal and stick to it, both in breadth and depth,” Wilks said.

“Having 2030 goals really does help to drive the direction of travel and determine how much we want to see ourselves changing over time,” McBain added.

4) Publicly announce your goals and set interim aims

It is a view held by many key players in the sustainability field that companies should publish their targets, both to create accountability and to engage key stakeholders with key challenges.

This point was re-iterated by Centrica Business Solutions’ Donald, who also urged listeners to follow his company’s lead in setting interim targets. These two moves, he explained, help to hold people responsible for turning their green ambitions into action.

“Whether you have an individual, departmental or corporate commitment, these sorts of things aren’t going to happen on their own – they need to be driven, and driven hard,” he said.

5) Use the Global Goals to empower your people

While critics have argued that the SDGs complicate the conversation around sustainability by providing 239 sub-targets – and by framing all issues on a global scale – the speakers agreed that they can be leveraged as a key tool for engaging with employees and other stakeholders.

Hilton’s Low, for example, said that the knowledge that they were positively contributing to global progress had proven to empower for staff members across the business.

“Everyone that we’ve spoken with cares about at least one thing covered by the Goals, whether it’s climate change, food waste or recycling,” she said.

“There’s something that speaks to each of us at a fundamental, human level, which has enabled us to move [corporate responsibility] work forward by reaching diverse colleagues across our value chain.”

Similarly, Asia Pulp & Paper’s Wilks described the SDGs as “a window to a better dialogue” with staff and consumers.  

6) Collaboration is key….

The basis of the SDGs is that they will require all stakeholders across the world – from multinational corporations and large, developed nations, right down to individual consumers – to take ambitious and unified action. Indeed, the 17th Goal is dedicated solely to partnerships and collective action.

Our speakers were, therefore, keen to stress the importance of collaboration, both internally and externally, to their SDG journeys.

“You don’t need to do this alone,” Wilks urged. “Don’t be afraid to invite critical stakeholders such as NGOs into your strategy development. The impact of your strategy needs to address concerns, and this will only improve it.”

7) … and so is radical honesty

During one of edie’s previous SDG-focused webinars, experts debated whether businesses should communicate their negative contributions to the SDGs, or at least be more transparent about their related challenges.

This discussion continued during Wednesday’s debate when Low, Wilks and McBain all encouraged listeners to disclose more information about their SDG-related challenges and opportunities both internally and externally. This, they explained, can help to boost consumer trust, forge new partnerships and drive faster positive progress.

“Being really candid about some of the challenges and opportunities that we continue to see along the way is important,” Low said. “This is very much a learning journey for us, as I’m sure it is for a lot of others.”

She noted that Hilton enables all of its staff to track progress against each of its goals through a regularly updated online platform.  

The webinar is free to watch and available on demand.

The SDGs at edie Live 2019

The Sustainable Development Goals are taking centre stage at the UK’s largest sustainability and energy exhibition this year, with an entire Theatre and day dedicated to the topic at edie Live on 21-22 May.

The two-day show – edie’s biggest event of the year – has become a highlight of the calendar for sustainability, energy and environment professionals looking for new ideas and solutions that will help them achieve a low-carbon, resource efficient and profitable future for their business.

Register for your free edie Live 2019 pass here.

 edie Staff

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