The SDG stumbling blocks: What’s stopping us?

Today is the Global Day of Action as part of Global Goals Week (22-29 September). But with the UK reportedly only performing well on less than a quarter of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), why are our ambitions not converting into ACTIONS at a business level?

The SDG stumbling blocks: What’s stopping us?

Earlier this month, I sat in on a breakfast briefing which was being held in London for edie’s Sustainability Leader’s Club (pictured). The topic was one which has continued to fill edie’s news agenda since I joined the editorial team in May: how business can move ‘from ambition to action’ with the SDGs

Speaking in the briefing were DIY retailer Kingfisher’s head of sustainability Caroline Laurie and catering company Bunzl’s head of sustainability and corporate responsibility Joanna Gilroy – both representing firms that have taken big steps towards embedding the SDGs in their core business strategies.

After an inspiring talk about how to use the 17 Global Goals and their 169 targets to your advantage, the two speakers were quizzed by their fellow Leaders Club members about how, exactly, they have managed to communicate the benefits of embedding the SDGs (rather than simply overlaying the framework onto their existing sustainability strategies) to their boardrooms.

Laurie said she was “constantly looking for nuggets of information” to prove the business case for the Goals. Such nuggets include a new report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, which reveals that action on climate change could deliver economic growth worth at least $26trn by 2030. Similarly, Gilroy encouraged sustainability professionals to “build a burning platform” for a particular issue covered by the SDG agenda, and to go from there by “translating” jargon into language which directors could “digest easily”.

But what can be gathered from this focused line of questioning that Laurie and Gilroy were facing during the discussion is that sustainability leaders are – broadly speaking – struggling to communicate the SDGs at boardroom level and therefore failing to take sufficient action on the SDGs.

So, why the struggle?

One head of sustainability recently told me (off-record) that her company’s boardroom flat-out refused to adopt the SDGs until specific evidence proving the financial business benefit for doing so had emerged. Clearly, reports 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 are not enough on their own; because such research does not go granular enough prove the benefits of adopting each and all of the Goals at a business level.

Whilst it may be easy for a supermarket to measure whether it has halved food waste across its operations in line with SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), for example, the fact remains that metrics to track progress towards all Goals for all businesses are yet to be developed. This makes the business-level benefits of embedding every Goal difficult to identify and measure for every business.

Chicken and egg

It’s hard to attend any sustainability or CSR event nowadays without talk of brand purpose. Numerous studies have concluded that millennials and Gen Z-ers are moving away from buying from – or working for – companies without a strong purpose beyond their products.

But for brands that were set up long before corporate sustainability became a key business driver, becoming a truly ‘purposeful’ business can undeniably be daunting – particularly for those companies whose operational models have been built on cradle-to-grave principles. Changing or renewing business purpose no doubt becomes even harder when the framework for doing so lists no less than 169 individual aims covering global challenges that are often outside of your direct control.

Of the 200 sustainability professionals the edie team surveyed for its inaugural Mission Possible report earlier this year, more than two-thirds said that aligning the Global Goals with their organisation’s core purpose would be the crucial factor in bridging the gap between SDG alignment and action. Yet, one in 10 said their organisation had no intention to ever assess its impact towards the Goals, with a further 13% claiming they are unsure if such a move would happen.

The digestibility of the all-encompassing goals is, in itself, often cited as a key barrier to adoption – but the signs suggest that their scope is now proving challenging to align with a concise brand purpose as well. In this regard, it would seem that the business community is suffering from something of a “chicken and egg” paradox in regards to sustainability strategies and the SDGs: should I start with my pre-existing sustainability strategy and make it fit with the new SDG framework, focusing only on the Goals that I directly impact; or should I start with the framework itself, and rebuild my sustainability strategy around all 17 Goals?

With the first country-level report into SDG action revealing that the UK is only performing well on 24% of its SDG targets, it is clear that this is a strategic dilemma that must be addressed by all businesses, before they consider aligning themselves with the SDGs. Otherwise, the communicative and systemic challenges associated with the Goals will continue to stifle progress, and that action that we must drive through initiative Global Goals Week will not be realised.

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