Since their launch five years ago, the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals have been the topic of conversation in corporate sustainability. Then came COVID-19, threatening our health and the health of our loved ones, upheaving the economy, and causing us to rethink how we work and live, the conversation has shifted.
But the rifts that COVID-19 has exposed in our society, including its disproportionate impacts on already marginalized communities, demonstrate not only the huge need for the SDGs to remain a priority, but also to show the current limitations in our ability to address future crises like the climate emergency.
And yet, last year, even before COVID-19, only 21% of respondents in the Accenture-UN Global Compact survey indicated that business is playing a critical role in contributing to the SDGs, or Global Goals. And now, the Gates Foundation reports that for the first time in years, we have collectively regressed on our path to reaching them. But does that mean all of the talk about Sustainable Development Goals has been false—or that the idea of implementing SDGs has failed entirely?
Now that they’ve existed for half a decade, it’s become clear just how difficult the SDGs are for businesses to understand, let alone address meaningfully. Their sheer number and complexity can be overwhelming—there are 17 goals (why 17?) that seem to overlap with each other, 169 underlying targets, and even more indicators. And despite how massive they are, aren’t they missing explicit references to important issues, like racial justice and equity?
This past January, B Lab and the UN Global Compact launched the SDG Action Manager—a free online impact-management platform designed to address these challenges and help businesses from any size, sector, or market understand how their business actions can contribute to the SDGs, track and compare their performance, and improve. Its development process yielded several valuable lessons on how to demystify the SDGs and enable real, meaningful business action on them, that are just as relevant now in the midst of COVID-19. So what should you do to tackle the SDGs in a way that is both manageable and meaningful for your business? Here are some tips:
Focus on the details, while recognizing the big picture.
The SDGs overlap by design—the idea of sustainable development is holistic and interconnected, and the SDGs themselves reflect that. But it’s also impossible, and not particularly relevant, for every business to tackle them all at once. The key is to lean into this challenge, but not to use it as an excuse for inaction.
Consider identifying a few key SDGs that are most relevant for your business, and use them as a focal point for your overall strategy and efforts. But at the same time, don’t completely ignore the rest. Just because issues related to biodiversity (SDG 14: Life Below Water and SDG 15: Life on Land) might warrant prioritizing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make sure you have established protections for your workers’ rights and well-being (SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth). While you should go deep on managing the SDGs that are most relevant to your work, you should still identify key management opportunities and strategies to address the others.
Root your efforts in the SDG targets, but it’s okay to expand beyond them.
You think you know what SDG 2: Zero Hunger is all about? You might want to double-check. Underneath each of the 17 SDGs exist underlying “targets” that provide concrete details about each one, and you may be surprised by what is actually covered. This is where another challenge lies: Those targets aren’t always actionable or relevant for individual businesses, or the targets themselves might seem limited in a way that runs counter to the “spirit” of the SDG itself (in the case of racial justice and equity, for example, acknowledgment of current events is key).
By starting with the targets, and therefore taking an “inside out” approach to the SDGs, you can at least ensure that you have an authentic understanding of the SDG itself, and not just its headline. And with that understanding, you can then identify where it’s appropriate to extend beyond the targets, either by identifying their business-relevant equivalents or by filling in the gaps that you believe are necessary to address. In SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities, for example, you can translate the targets into practices and metrics regarding equality in your business (such as diversity in your workforce, high to low pay ratios, etc.) and you could extend those issues to include aspects of diversity and inequality that aren’t explicitly called out in them, like LGTBQ antidiscrimination and advancement.
Consider all levels of your business.
Once you’ve balanced focus on a particular set of SDGs with managing them holistically, and gotten a clear understanding of what each SDG represents, this is the place to lean in. By thinking about how the SDGs could fit within all aspects of your business, you’ll understand the many important levers within your organization to create change, and to identify which of those levers are most meaningful (and the most efficient to pull). One way to think about these levers are your business model, internal operations, supply chain, and collective action.
Depending on the particular circumstances, each of these areas could represent important opportunities to contribute. For example, a company might begin by understanding its ability to take climate action (SDG 13) within its own operations by measuring and managing its usage of renewable energy. It could then also expand its considerations to thinking about how it can reduce the emissions of its suppliers, how to fundamentally alter its products or services to be carbon neutral or negative (its business model), and then consider that perhaps its greatest potential impact is in advocating for industry collaborations or higher regulations to improve contributions not only in its own company, but for its peers as well.
In doing so, it’s important to also acknowledge that a business’s own actions can both be contributing positively to an SDG or hindering its achievement. Any meaningful analysis should include not only the good things that you’re doing or the actions that you can take, but also the actions that you should stop.
While the SDGs are complex, they don’t need to be overwhelming. The truth remains that they represent a unifying north star for where our society and world need to go as we collectively manage, and eventually grow from, the immediate challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re a galvanizing force in which we should all take part, and they represent an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to unleash all types of capital—financial and beyond—to build a successful future for their business and the world.
Particularly in light of the challenges that our health, well-being, and economy currently face, all businesses, and all those who scrutinize them, should remember that even any approximation of achieving the SDGs requires more from all of us. That means talk of contributions to the SDGs shouldn’t just focus on what a company is already doing—but also on what else, or how much more, could be done. It’s time not just to look at velocity, but also acceleration.
While COVID-19 might come across as a valid excuse, it’s actually an opportunity. Now is not the time to slow down. As a business, make sure you don’t let up, and don’t just review the SDGs, look at everything you already do, and begin telling a story about how you are “already” contributing to them. While that might be a good start, it’s not where we need to get. Roll up your sleeves and think about the rest.
Dan Osusky is the director of standards at B Lab, a network of organizations that is transforming the global economy to benefit all people, communities, and the planet. Most recently, his work has included the development of the SDG Action Manager in partnership with the United Nations Global Compact.