Should businesses communicate negative contributions to the Global Goals?

EXCLUSIVE: As more companies pledge to support and report on the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), should businesses also examine and communicate negative contributions to the Global Goals?

That was one of the key discussion points from a panel of sustainability experts from BT, the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) and DNV GL, who last week discussed how sustainability and energy professionals can drive engagement with the SDGs and spur tangible action during edie’s SDG Power Hour webinar.

Taking place last Thursday (July 26) – and available now on demand – the hour-long webinar, hosted in association with DNV GL, saw panellists debate how businesses can bridge the gap between ambition and action on the Global Goals, after a string of reports showed that a huge proportion of firms to have made SDG pledges have not yet to set any measurable targets related to the Goals, nor are they monitoring progress against them.


For those businesses that are monitoring progress against the SDGs, the normal process has been to act on areas where companies are performing well and that are material to the needs and concerns of their operations.

During the session, DNV GL’s principle consultant, Shaun Walden, was asked whether the business appetite to track and report on harmful impacts on the 17 goals had changed in recent times.

Walden said that while the desire to measure and communicate such impacts has “absolutely” grown, corporations are still in the stages of thinking about reporting this information, and generally tend to design their sustainability reports to “tell the most positive story possible”.

“Where businesses do talk about their negative impacts, they often go over them pretty quickly or tell a good story about how they are mitigating them,” Walden said. “I do think this is not just an SDG issue – it is a sustainability reporting challenge of how to be open and transparent without putting yourself out there to be overly criticised.”

Flip the script

In keeping with this trend, BT’s principle consultant on sustainable business, Steven Moore, noted that while the communications giant maps both positive and negative impacts towards the goals, most of its annual sustainability report “details the positive”, with the “exact wording” of negative impact mapping omitted.

“The flipside of the positive stories that we talk about is that we do have a potentially negative impact in these areas through our business, so my advice to other businesses and organisations would be to ask what your biggest negative impacts are because these are the things that you can tackle first and flip around into a positive story,” Moore explained.

Away from communications, the BRC’s environmental policy advisor, Alice Ellison, concluded that negative sustainability impacts from retailers were often communicated by campaigners and media organisations, spurring chains to report on their own footprints to stay one step ahead of the criticism and prevent reputational damage.

Ellison said that embedding the SDGs in business strategies provides a “real opportunity” for large retailers to show that the sector is “on a journey towards more sustainable operations” while “accepting that there are gaps”.

Proactive professionals

Another key debate among the speakers covered whether corporations could use the SDGs as a framework to tackle sustainability issues before they are raised by NGOs, campaigners and journalists, resulting in attention which can damage brand reputation.

Responding to the question, which was submitted by former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, Moore and Ellison agreed that engaging with those likely to exert external pressure was “business as usual” for BT and BRC members – but that the SDGs provide a lens to prevent reactive and isolated sustainability actions.

Ellison cited the example of the plastics debate – which remains firmly at the forefront of public attention in the wake of the “Blue Planet 2 effect” – as an issue which sits within a number of the 169 targets of the SDGs.

She explained that while the plastics conversation among the public risks “taking place in isolation and not in the context of climate change”, businesses that align themselves with the SDGs are offered a more holistic framework to tackling high-profile issues, ensuring they are not making “knee-jerk” changes which have unintended or negative impacts elsewhere.

A commonly cited example of such a risk is supermarkets being petitioned to remove single-use plastic wrapping from cucumbers – even though the packaging extends the vegetable’s lifespan considerably and therefore helps reduce food waste.

Boardroom buy-in

As the webinar concluded, each speaker was asked for one key tip to attain internal attention – both at a boardroom level and from front-line staff – on the importance of the Global Goals.

Their expert advice came after DNV GL’s survey of 244 companies on the topic of the SDGs revealed that the largest barrier to embedding the global goals in sustainability strategies was found to be a lack of an understanding of the business case for doing so.

Other key barriers included a lack of clarity about regulatory implications of the targets, confusion about the complexity of the agenda and a lack of available data on nationwide progress towards the goals so far. Indeed, the first report tracking the UK’s progress towards the SDGs was only released by the UKSSD last month.

The UKSSD’s network director and co-chair, Emily Auckland, urged professionals to be clear about what the business risk and opportunities of aligning with the SDGs are for their specific organisation – particularly in the context of what is happening in the constituencies where they operate – to prove the economic case for doing so.

Panellists agreed with Auckland, with BT’s Moore adding that the SDGs provided a chance for boardrooms to “cast value a little more broadly”, encompassing the reduction of future business costs, attraction and retention of talent, and improving brand image as well as immediate capital gain.

Meanwhile, the BRC’s Ellison emphasised the fact that the framework provides a globally agreed, universal and neutral lens which can help businesses set longer-term goals beyond 2020, while DNV GL’s Walden told listeners that investment firms are increasingly looking to provide funding to businesses taking strong SDG action.

Sarah George

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie