Sustainable Development Goals – dilemma or opportunity for business?

Chris Seekings reports on a roundtable on the relevance and progress of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals

With 17 overarching goals, and 169 individual targets, it is easy to see why many businesses struggle to adopt the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or even understand their relevance.

The non-binding intergovernmental agreements intend to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all by 2030 through the participation of everyone in society.

Although many companies have been successful in responding to the SDGs, there are plenty that are left confused by them, while some do not even know they exist.

Two years on since their creation, a group of IEMA members and partner bodies, representing organisations from large corporates to NGOs, sit down to discuss the relevance of SDGs, and their success from a business point of view.

Facilitator for sustainability, Penny Walker, and Marks & Spencer senior sustainability manager, Phil Cumming, set the scene by pointing out significant momentum behind the SDGs, with firms now looking at the goals from a broader perspective than they were before.

Cumming is also keen to highlight DNV GL’s ‘Spaceship Earth’ project, and how particular progress around the SDGs is expected in tackling hunger, improving health and education, as well as greater economic development and resilient infrastructure, with most of the success coming from the US and OECD.


Lacking leadership

Although the panel believes the SDGs are a valuable guide for businesses, and that there is certainly momentum behind the goals, there is also a reminder that the supporting targets and indicators are mainly aimed at governments rather than individual organisations. This is thought to result in firms struggling to find relevance to their business, and that this perhaps leads to various different interpretations.

It is reflected in a plethora of SDG frameworks being developed by organisations such as the Earth Security Group, the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the Business and Sustainable Development Commission – although welcome, one fear is that it is generating inconsistency.

 “The important thing to realise is that it’s a politically driven framework, not technically or scientific, it’s full of flaws. This has led to a situation where we are designing the plane while flying,” says Farooq Ullah, executive director at the Stakeholder Forum, which aims to advance sustainable development and promote democracy at a global level.

It is agreed that, while governments need to be accountable for the successful implementation of the goals, the approach must be multi-sector, and with multiple stakeholders. 

However, the UK government has not been showing leadership on this agenda, with businesses instead looking for external drivers to help convince their boards that the SDGS are something they need to get behind, according to Steve Kenzie, executive director at UN Global Compact Network UK – the worldwide initiative to encourage firms to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies.

He explains how his organisation recently held a talk for businesses, the first half of which concerned the Modern Slavery Act, while the second was a discussion about SDGs. “The atmosphere just died in the second half,” he sighs. “SDGs from a holistic perspective are scary to businesses, and unlike with modern slavery, we are not getting the signals from the government that they are genuinely committed to this agenda.”

More evidence of this can be seen in the fact that the Department for International Development is the only UK government body with an official position on SDGs, the panel agrees, which subsequently moves the discussion further away from being the business debate it should be. 

In addition, Cumming highlights that it was Theresa May who was initially reluctant to introduce the Transparency in Supply Chains provisions of the Modern Slavery Act when she was home secretary, but eventually bowed to significant and targeted pressure from politicians, NGOs, major brands and retailers. 

There are also concerns that many firms are confused about which SDGs apply to them, with some finding it hard to see the practical and quantitative business opportunities they present.

However, many participants stress the importance of sustainability professionals interpreting the SDGs for firms, arguing that the complexity under discussion is what is found in the real world, and that is down to the profession to help make it make sense. 


Competition or collaboration

While many companies are taking responsibility and implementing SDGs, a reoccurring theme throughout this discussion is scepticism regarding the intentions of businesses. There are concerns that companies are publicising the goals they are achieving successfully, but not those that they are failing to tackle – undermining many SDGs in the process. 

Ullah sees the goals as a three-part equation: first firms should map their positive contributions, and secondly identify their negative impacts, before finally determining remedial actions, but adds: “It’s easy to do the first one but harder to do the others, because companies don’t want to disclose that information.”

Alan Knight, general manager for corporate responsibility at ArcelorMittal, agrees, saying that it is this that has been “spectacularly” missing from the debate so far.

Knight’s company is the world’s largest steel producer, and naturally emits vast amounts of greenhouse gases. However, it also recycles around 25 million tonnes of steel every year – saving approximately 36 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere annually.

He believes it is vitally important for firms to highlight where they are successfully implementing SDGs, but that they also own up when they are causing damage. “I was lucky enough to be at the UN when the SDGs were launched, and Ban Ki-moon said the same thing – we need to identify where our success undermines the goals and how we calibrate success.”

Part of the reason for this lack of disclosure is that firms see the SDGs as a way of highlighting their positive contributions to society in order to compete with others, rather than a collaborative effort to address global issues facing society at large, according to the panel.

But this raises one big philosophical question for Ullah, who asks: “How do you create co-operation in a system that is based on competition?” This opens up a can of worms for the panel, which suggests the SDGs are almost being implemented in an unnatural context due to our political, economic and even biological reliance on competition.

It leads to the prediction that whole sectors and supply chains will learn to collaborate in order to achieve a particular outcome, such as providing another million people with clean water – harnessing the power of competition. 

It is agreed that it will be down to sustainability professionals to facilitate that co-operation within their organisations, whether that be between businesses, governments or NGOs.

In addition, it is thought that a well-known environmental NGO will eventually collaborate with a social one, developing a framework of expectation analysing SDG exposure, similar to the work done by CDP, with firms then put under pressure to ensure they abide by that framework. 



National discussion

Although the SDGs involve answering some of the most difficult questions facing humanity worldwide, it is argued that the goals need to be translated and applied in a national and local context, as it was proposed in the UN’s Agenda 21.

This is particularly true in the UK, which has fallen behind other countries like Finland and Germany in recent years, according to Ullah, who says the latter is now 20 years ahead of Britain in terms of governance and infrastructure. 

And it is not just European companies ahead of the UK in regards to SDGs, with Columbia successfully implementing the goals by linking them to a peace building process that has seen awareness in the country rise to around 98%.

“That is because they have made it nationally relevant, so people can see what the goals mean in practical terms to them, which I think needs to be done in the UK to get people attracted,” Ullah commented.

However, he goes on to highlight the elephant in the room: “Brexit is casting a long shadow over all of this, sucking the wind out of everything, so there is no vision for the future.”

This inevitably leads back to a discussion about the government, with Walker arguing the SDGs should be the backbone for the UK’s entire economic and social strategy post-Brexit. “And they must not be seen as just a developing country agenda,” she adds.

Ullah seconds this, asking how we in the West can expect the goals to be taken seriously in poorer nations if our consumption and production patterns do not change. “They want to get rich quickly like we did,” he continues. “If we don’t demonstrate different behaviour, then this whole thing will fall away and I will have wasted 15 years of my life!”


Raising awareness

Switching gears, Toby Robins, chief executive of the procurement and management services organisation Office Club, is keen to highlight the lack of SDG awareness among smaller firms.

After conducting a straw poll of his 200 SME members, he explains: “They know nothing about SDGs. I thought it was just my sector, but the British Chambers of Commerce did a similar thing, and 40% hadn’t heard of them.

“The opportunity for awareness to be driven by things like procurement is there, but there is a lot of work to be done for small businesses.”

Kenzie has had similar experiences. He explains how he embarked on an 11-city tour around the UK staging events to raise awareness of the business opportunities SDGs present, but says the experience was “very challenging”. 

“For the most part they weren’t turning up,” he continues. “And why would they? For most businesses the SDGs are still an ‘unknown unknown’, and those that we actually got in the room were intrigued, but it is hard to get them to act.”

It is also agreed that the growing volume of frameworks we touched on earlier has become another burden for SMEs that are struggling to keep up, which moves the conversation on to further ways to incentivise smaller firms.

Ullah explains how in Germany, there are a whole range of schemes and awards to encourage SMEs to engage with SDGs – something that the UK should look at emulating, along with constantly reminding them about the business benefits. “That is a drum that we can’t beat loud enough,” he adds.

However, it is the “far too long” 2030 timeline that is turning larger firms away from the SDGs, according to many, with it suggested that the discussion perhaps needs to be framed differently so that it highlights the short-term risks and opportunities associated with the goals. 

In addition, the panel says corporates need to take responsibility for the SDGs, even if it is just one of the 169 targets, as it will allow them to focus their resources on specific goals and encourage coalitions. 


Joined-up thinking

Although IEMA policy and engagement lead, Nick Blyth, concedes that this discussion may have raised as many questions as answers, one feature that keeps coming up is the need for more collaboration and integrated reporting. 

There are worries that there are real limits to what can be achieved by one single organisation working alone, and a belief that firms cannot just treat the SDGs as a box-ticking exercise.

ArcelorMittal head of sustainable development reporting, Annie Heaton, says that although it is quite straightforward to measure how a firm is impacting one SDG, it is harder to then see how that affects another. “We need to know that if we want to increase jobs for example, how is that going to impact on carbon emissions. We must make sure we are looking at the trade-offs.”

Although it is predicted that the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures will improve future reporting, looking at the SDGs in their entirety can help firms see that something like having a low-carbon footprint may not be the best measure of success when tackling global warming, according to Ullah.

He says it is just as important to look at carbon utility, and how much you can get out of a unit of carbon, which may in turn lead to investment in carbon capture and reuse. “But the lack of co-ordination is killing us,” he exclaims. “We need to become greater than the sum of our parts. If we think about these things in more sophisticated ways it might help companies.”

Sustainability consultant at EnergyABC, Colin Braidwood, agrees, saying the SDGs have been very useful in helping businesses identify where they need to improve, but reporting of them should be much broader. “If they stretch that out to include their value chain, and not just their supply chain, that would really change the conversation,” he adds.

Despite there being much room for improvement, the panel is genuinely optimistic for further collaboration and integrated reporting, while it is agreed that the SDGs act as an important reminder to governments that their primary job is not just about boosting GDP.

In addition, Cumming explains how access to information and advice is increasingly improving awareness worldwide, saying: “While no single goal will be achieved across the whole world, the targets will continue to facilitate progress globally.”


Roundtable participants:

Nick Blyth, IEMA policy and engagement lead 
Alan Knight, ArcelorMittal general manager for corporate responsibility 
Penny Walker, facilitator for sustainability
Colin Braidwood, EnergyABC sustainability consultant 
Annie Heaton, ArcelorMittal head of sustainable development reporting
Toby Robins, Office Club chief executive 
Phil Cumming, Marks & Spencer senior sustainability manager 
Farooq Ullah, Stakeholder Forum executive director 
Steve Kenzie, UN Global Compact Network UK executive director 


Back to Top