In 2015, to establish a combined global effort to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges, the United Nations set out 17 specific social and economic development goals, which national governments hold the responsibility of achieving.
While national governments have been handed the overall responsibility in seeing that these targets are met, these goals are not achievable without the combined effort of businesses and organisations, as well as national governments. The private sector can, and should, in future be required by law to contribute in as many ways as possible.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cover a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues including: climate change, poverty, education, conservation, economic growth, responsible trade and gender equality, amongst others. These goals have set targets to be achieved by the year 2030 which will tackle and, in some cases, eradicate these global challenges—protecting the planet and ensuring greater equality and prosperity for all.
In reality, the sustainability and longevity of many industries and organisations relies on achieving many of these goals. Therefore, it is in the interests of many organisations to contribute to tackling these challenges not only for the good of the planet, but also the future of the organisation.
However, it is simply not feasible or practical for an organisation to contribute to all 17 of these goals. To become effective contributors, organisations should focus on tackling those sustainable development issues that best align with their business strategies and business practices.
Furthermore, to contribute to the relevant SDGs in the most successful and effective way businesses must embed their selected goals into their organisation’s thinking, actions and reporting. Understandable, for many, that it’s difficult to know where to begin.
In my report, The Sustainable Development Goals, integrated thinking and the integrated report, published by the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS), I’ve set out five steps that an organisation can take, using the integrated reporting framework to not only contribute to the UN’s SDGs, but also benefit their own organisation in doing so.
1) Identify the sustainable development issues that affect the organisation
Though many of these sustainable development issues are likely to be important to an organisation, contributing to all 17 of the SDGs would simply not be feasible or beneficial. Therefore, an organisation must identify exactly which are the most relevant to their current or potential business practices, products and services.
This should be done by encouraging stakeholder engagement and drawing upon the expertise of their board and governing bodies to determine which of the SDGs are most likely to create an opportunity or a risk for the organisation.
The selected SDGs could impact an organisation in a number of ways, whether directly, by creating new business opportunities; or indirectly, through the quality of relationships with stakeholders or by influencing the availability, quality and affordability of multiple capitals. It is, therefore, important to understand exactly how contributing to each SDG could impact the organisation and its ability to create value before making a commitment.
Furthermore, inviting insights and opinions from their wider networks can help an organisation to gather support for any new initiatives that may be introduced as a result.
2) Identify the level of impact these SDGs will have
Once the sustainable development issues that are most likely to affect value creation have been identified and evaluated, an organisation must then calculate the level of impact that these sustainable development issues will have.
The most impactful issues should be prioritised and receive the highest level of attention and consideration. An organisation should also attempt to determine how to reduce potential risks and increase opportunities that could arise, by contributing to those SDGs that stand to create the most value for the organisation and its stakeholders.
These are likely to be different for each specific industry and organisation—for example, a company that trades globally is likely to be most affected by sustainable development issues such as the environment and poverty in their trading countries, therefore investing in tackling these specific issues will be of higher importance than many of the others.
3) Developing a strategy to contribute to the SDGs
Once an organisation has identified which issues are most likely to affect its practices, whether these will create opportunities or risks, and the overall level of impact they will have, it is then essential to develop a strategy to contribute to its selected SDGs.
To demonstrate a clear return on investment, this strategy should align with the organisation’s business model, identify how to tackle and minimise risks, and outline exactly how to maximise the opportunities that these SDGs can create, not only for the organisation but the wider world.
This strategy should be a long-term plan, but also feature short, medium and long-term targets for achieving these SDGs, so that the organisation can effectively measure and review how successfully they are tackling these issues and make adjustments in future.
4) Develop integrated thinking and connectivity
It is important to develop integrated thinking and connectivity among staff and stakeholders as part of the organisation’s SDG contribution strategy. Over time, the importance each social development issue may hold within the organisation may fluctuate, with some issues becoming drastically more important and pressing than others.
Similarly, in an ever-changing external environment, evolving societal expectations and natural resource limitations are also likely to cause the importance and relevance of certain SDGs to fluctuate. By including integrated thinking, connectivity and sound governance within an organisation’s strategy, it will be easier to adapt to these changes if and when it is necessary, ensuring that the organisation is always contributing to the SDGs that create the most value, and remains in agreement on how to do so.
5) Prepare an integrated report
Once an organisation’s SDG efforts are underway, managers should create an integrated report on the key sustainable development issues which are impacting on the organisation and its stakeholders, and how these are influencing value creation in the short, medium and long term.
This report should explain how the organisation has been contributing to tackling these sustainable development issues and the value that these contributions has created for the business and society thus far, as well as detailing future actions to ensure continued progress.
Not only does this clearly demonstrate an organisation’s actions to those they are held accountable to, it also allows the organisation to take a leading stance on the issues that will continue to grow in importance, encouraging greater levels of SDG contribution by providing the blueprint for other organisations to follow.
Additionally, this platform could help an organisation to stand apart from its competitors, enhance its reputations and encourage new business.
The United Nations’ 17 SDGs
1 No Poverty
2 Zero Hunger
3 Good Health and Well-being
4 Quality Education
5 Gender Equality
6 Clean Water and Sanitation
7 Affordable and Clean Energy
8 Decent Work and Economic Growth
9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
10 Reduced Inequality
11 Sustainable Cities and Communities
12 Responsible Consumption and Production
13 Climate Action
14 Life Below Water
15 Life on Land
16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
17 Partnerships to achieve the Goal