The SDG roundtable: Getting engaged with the Global Goals – Part One

Sustainability and corporate responsibility managers from a range of businesses recently gathered in London for an exclusive roundtable hosted by edie and DNV GL to discuss how the private sector is stepping up efforts to drive engagement with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It’s been almost three years since 193 nations introduced the 17 SDGs, underpinned by 169 detailed targets, as an overarching global framework to end extreme poverty, tackle inequalities, and combat climate change by 2030.

More than 10,000 companies globally are now engaging with the SDGs in some way – most commonly through an initial statement of support. But, with just 12 years left to reach the lofty ambitions set out through the Goals, corporate progress has seemingly been stifled by an inability to move beyond initial action plans to embed them.

This gap between ambition and action is also being seen politically. Reports note that the UK Government’s performance on the SDGs is plagued by policy gaps or inadequate performance, and it has fallen on end-user businesses to take the driving seat and ensure the Goals are being recognised by policymakers, consumers and suppliers alike.

So, how are businesses planning to bridge these gaps? How are firms using the Goals to improve supplier relationships around sustainability? And how can sustainability leaders and their teams effectively embed the SDGs into CSR strategies in a way that drives engagement throughout the business?

Those were some of the key questions that edie sought to answer during our exclusive roundtable discussion earlier this month. Sponsored by global quality assurance and risk management company DNV GL, the roundtable brought together 13 sustainability decision-makers and experts to discuss ways to drive engagement with the Goals.

Gift of the Goals

Roundtable participants immediately agreed that the SDG framework offers up a golden opportunity for sustainability departments to reframe current CSR efforts and build engagement across the business – particularly in getting the board on board with a sustainable business purpose.

Hospitality provider BaxterStorey’s head of sustainable business Mike Hanson noted that the SDGs have helped him highlight to the rest of the business that CSR isn’t just about sustainability, rather it has touch points across all functions and operations.

“The SDGs are a gift for our business,” Hanson said. “They provide a framework of discussion… instead of going off in a scattergun approach, by putting everything together we can look at things strategically.

“The Goals are also a brilliant tool for collaborating with the rest of the business. Senior directors recognise that sustainability is not just about saving the planet, it’s not just about being green, it touches every single part of the business.”

BaxterStorey is currently looking at what role it can play across all 17 Goals – an approach that was relatively unique among the roundtable participants, with others opting to “overlay” the Goals onto their existing sustainability strategy and identify those that are most directly relevant to their impacts.

The roundtable took place just days before roundtable sponsor DNV GL released findings of a major global survey which explored business attitudes towards the SDGs. Developed in partnership with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), that survey of around 250 companies across 43 countries and four continents discovered that the majority – 78% – had undertaken efforts to identify priority SDGs.

However, the survey went on to reveal that just 44% of companies had analysed the links between the Goals and their own corporate strategies, while only four in 10 had taken the next step of integrating the SDGs into a strategy.

As DNV GL’s senior director of business assurance Jason Perks explained: “Businesses are using the SDGs as more of an alignment, but very few have moved from alignment to actually change their strategies.

“The SDGs are being overlaid to strategies rather than actually changing them… businesses are mainly looking at goal level, rather than the targets.”

DNV GL’s survey noted that many companies are indeed “struggling to articulate the business case within their own operations”. So, despite some understanding of how businesses can move from ambition to action, it appears that many sustainability professionals aren’t sure of how to present the Goals to other areas of the business.

Educational firm Pearson – which employs more than 30,000 people across 70 countries – is one of the few organisations that has seen some initial success in translating the aims of the SDGs into business-critical action points. This is particularly the case with SDG Goal 4, which aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all – an ambition that aligns well with Pearson’s own ambitions and business purpose.

At the roundtable, Pearson’s head of corporate responsibility Peter Hughes echoed the point that the SDGs are a real gift for business, noting that the key to achieving the SDGs is to look beyond the Goals at the underpinning targets.

“Goal 4 made our involvement with the SDGs a bit of a no-brainer,” Hughes said. “Our challenge has been restraining our chief executive on how much we actually can do. What we did is lift off the Goals themselves and look at targets and indicators and figure how we can connect them to our strategy.”

The ‘S’ word

More than 80% of respondents to the aforementioned DNV GL survey claimed that company chief executives have a critical role to play in helping to advance the SDG agenda internally, but that such a dynamic was only being seen within half of the company’s surveyed.

One of the major challenges in driving engagement with the SDGs from the top of organisations is that the framework is still viewed as an environmental responsibility.

Distribution and outsourcing company Bunzl is one business that has successfully accelerated the adoption of the SDGs through C-suite engagement across its catering and hospitality arms. According to the firm’s head of sustainability Joanna Gilroy, it is crucial that sustainability professionals frame the SDGs through a business lens that, if necessary, ignores the environmental impacts altogether.

“One of the ways we’ve accelerated the adoption of the SDGs and got our C-suite team really excited is by bringing it right down to local level, as business-specific – that makes it easier for others to do their jobs,” Gilroy said.

“One of the key learnings I had was in talking about the financial value first, rather than the environmental value – and, in some cases, not mentioning the environment at all. I hated doing it, but in a corporate environment, sometimes never mentioning the ‘S word’ and putting it in a pure, cold business case of risk and mitigation, works.”

One of Gilroy’s key successes in this regard was in positioning the SDGs as an “action-orientated” framework that creates value through financial, social and environmental benefits. Once other areas of the business were on board with this positioning, she and her team utilised specific SDG case studies and publicised them internally to ignite a wider discussion on the Goals.

Read Part Two of this exclusive SDG roundtable article here.

Matt Mace

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