8 Things to Know about Business and the Global Goals

Let’s talk about the world’s audacious plan to achieve humanity’s 17 biggest challenges in the next 12 years.

To start, here are the Goals. In a nutshell, the UN Global Goals tell us what – the 17 challenges demanded by science; the who – all of us; and where – everywhere. But not how. How might we ensure that all people, everywhere – starting right here in our community – have the opportunity for a decent and dignified life? How will we ensure that our businesses help us live and work in ways that ensure prosperity and good health today and in the future?

I don’t have the answers. I’d posit that some of you do, or at least some of the right questions. Many of you are already using the Global Goals in your organizations and businesses – perhaps in how you design employee and community engagement programs, in reporting to your key stakeholders, and the products and services you offer today and are planning for the future. We can build on what’s already working and create new solutions together.

What I can do is share what I know about what is happening today with the UN Global Goals and business. I can tell you with certainty that there is an incredible opportunity for all of us in this room to collectively do more together than we can do alone. It starts here, today, with this conversation.

Here are 8 Things you need to know about Business and the SDGs.

  1. It’s historic: The master plan is formally called the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – which includes the 17 SDGs – were unanimously adopted by 193 nation states in September 2015. We also call them the SDGs or Global Goals.

    This was the first of two times that all of humanity agreed on something. The 2nd time was the Paris Agreement for Climate Action in December 2015.

  2. They are universal: The SDGs are for business leaders everyone, everywhere – from global multi-nationals to the small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) that make up the vast majority of our businesses. They belong to all of us, and it’s our responsibility to achieve them. At the same time, The SDGs are non-binding, voluntary, and without the force of law.

  3. It’s happening: First of all, we are here. If you want to see how businesses are making positive impact for the SDGs, visit AIM2Flourish.com. You’ll find 2,000+ examples of business’ solutions for the SDGs, scouted and written by business students around the world.

    The business marketplace of SDGs tools, platforms, impact investing schemes, and networks has exploded in the past year. As an example, C-Change, a Switzerland-based think tank, mapped the number of online platforms that explicitly offer ways for people to collaborate for the Goals. Over 200 so far.

  4. They’re complex, interdependent, and act as a foundation for Targets and Indicators: The bricks make it easier to talk about the Goals, but they truly exist as an interconnected system. Yes, 17 Goals feels like a lot. Because life is complex.

    Under each goal, there are science-based Targets – 169 in total. For Goal 3, a target is to halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents.

    And for each Target, there are 242 indicators – surveys and measurements that already exist to tell us if we’re making progress toward a Target. For example, an indicator for reducing road traffic accidents is published death rates due to road traffic injuries.  

  5. There’s money to be made & marketplace position to be gained. The January 2017 “Better Business, Better World” report estimates that the UN SDGs are a $12 trillion dollar opportunity wrapped up in the biggest crises facing us and our world. Short term profits don’t matter in a world that fails. The businesses that understand this challenge and take action will be a step ahead. If you are looking for investment dollars, the SDGs are emerging as a unifying framework. It’s now common wisdom that younger employees are seeking workplaces with purpose and consumers want to connect with brands that they feel good about. I’m betting that prospective employees and customers will start asking about SDGs engagement in the same ways.

  6. As business leaders, Climate – Goal 13 – Emerging as the Galvanizing Lens. New IPCC report estimates we have a decade at most to stave off the worst of the coming climate-related disruptions. In September 2019, the UN Secretary-General will host a Climate Summit as part of the annual UN General Assembly. The young-people-led March 15 Climate Strike events gathered 1.4 million people in over 100 countries.

  7. As business leaders, The Goals are the best frameworks we have. They aren’t perfect, by a long-shot. “Goalwashing” (a play on “greenwashing”) is a real concern. And at the same time, there is no other global framework that has a better shot of authentically aligning finance, business, civil society, and governments in service to greater prosperity for all people.

  8. As business leaders, The Goals tell us What. The How is Up to Us. The SDGs present local opportunities for business, in the form of sustainable cities, climate-smart agriculture, clean energy, and improved medicine and health care. These are all things we care about right here.

So let’s talk about the How – starting with what’s happening.

There’s no one place in the world where you can look to see who is doing what for the SDGs in an apples to apples way. One proxy is to analyze what businesses say about themselves in their annual reports.

In November 2018, PwC published a report called: Does business really care about the SDGs?”

“Our top level findings suggest that, despite the SDGs being part of global business conversations for more than three years, and a significant number of companies pledging a commitment to the Goals, there remains a gap between companies’ good intentions and their ability to embed the SDGs into actual business strategy.”

In this study, 72% of companies mentioned the SDGs in their corporate and sustainability reporting . . .

But only 23% disclosed meaningful Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and targets related to the Goals – suggesting the selection of priority SDGs isn’t backed up by meaningful action or monitoring

This tells us that more businesses are engaging with the Goals, but not yet in ways that are embedded into strategy, performance and results.

Another way we can gauge action and impact is by looking at global networks for business and the SDGs. Here are 8:

  1. UN Global Compact – This is the network of businesses that support the UN’s 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. Out of the 10,000 Compact members worldwide, 532 of them are in North America – about 5%. See the Blueprint for SDGs Leadership plan).

  2. The Global Reporting Initiative offers the Reporting on the SDGs report.

  3. World Business Council for Sustainable Development have supported SDGs from the start, including the SDG Business Hub.

  4. B Corporation (the non-profit behind the B Corps movement) is embedding the SDGs into the next release of the B Impact Assessment.

  5. IMPACT2030 is a network of 75 businesses globally that support their employees SDGs’ volunteering.

  6. Business for 2030 is an initiative of the United States Council for International Business. Its website offers something different in that it maps business actions to each of the 169 targets, rather than the Goals.

  7. There is a booming ecosystem of websites that collect examples of business actions for the SDGs. Two of my favorites are AIM2Flourish.com (where I served as Director) and SupporttheGoals.org.

  8. While not exclusively focused on business, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), based at Columbia University and led by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, has created tools, collaborative communities, and an action platform.

For all that is happening with the SDGs, it isn’t happening fast enough and in enough places.

There is a leadership role to be filled to bring the SDGs challenge and opportunities to every business, everywhere. It’s up to us.