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6 themes for scaling corporate action on the SDGs

This year will be pivotal for businesses to make progress on the UN's blueprint for peace and prosperity.

This year marks four years since the United Nations member states unanimously agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and planet by 2030, a deadline that is starting to loom ever larger on the horizon.

As the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), we bring together a coalition of 200 of the world’s most forward-thinking businesses to target the realization of the SDGs through the transformation of six key economic systems, driven by innovative business solutions.

As we continue efforts to translate the transformative ambitions of the SDG agenda into action, 2019 promises to be something of a pivotal year underpinned by a series of key developments that will have important implications for business over the next 12 months. Here are six themes to consider to help your own company focus and prioritize:

1. A year for taking stock of progress

2019 marks an important juncture for evaluating SDG progress with the U.N. set to undertake a comprehensive review of achievements against this global agenda thus far.

July will bring the convening of the now-customary High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) at the U.N. headquarters in New York, with a record number of 51 nations scheduled to deliver national SDG progress updates in the form of Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). The theme of this year’s forum will be "Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality" — a topic on which there is mounting global scrutiny and around which private sector input and dialogue will be essential.

These efforts will, in turn, pave the way for the first high-level "SDG Summit," held under the auspices of the U.N. General Assembly in September. The summit will bring heads of state together to discuss the SDGs for the first time since their launch, and it will seek to reinvigorate international commitment to the 2030 Agenda while showcasing progress and pervading challenges. This year’s SDG Business Forum also will be organized to coincide with the SDG Summit, and it will give business leaders an important platform to similarly take stock of their SDG efforts and to engage in dialogues with policymakers on how to further scale efforts.

Ahead of the SDG Summit, the U.N. also will release a new Global Sustainable Development Report that will provide a landmark analysis of SDG progress over the course of the past four years.

Companies that are not demonstrating robust commitments in this space are likely to find themselves being held increasingly accountable by a range of stakeholders.
In what promises to be a bumper year for stock-taking, it will be important for the private sector to assimilate the findings of these assessments and to be part of the conversation around how efforts can be enhanced. WBCSD again will be working to inject a forward-thinking business voice into proceedings and will be organizing a range of engagement opportunities around both the HLPF and the SDG Summit later this year.

2. Business’ SDG commitments under the microscope

2019 also will bring more detailed scrutiny applied to corporate SDG performance. As consensus and guidance on exactly how businesses should strategically integrate and report on the SDGs continue to mature, companies not demonstrating robust commitments in this space are likely to find themselves being held increasingly accountable by a range of stakeholders.

Oxfam’s "Walk the Talk (PDF)" report, published towards the end of last year, points to a number of concerns regarding the level of SDG ambition shown by the business world to date and makes a series of recommendations for enhancing meaningful SDG engagement by the private sector moving forward.

Another initiative that will be exploring corporate performance in this field in depth is the World Benchmarking Alliance. In September, this multi-stakeholder initiative announced its ambition to rank a selection of 2,000 of some of the world’s largest companies through a series of benchmarks exploring private sector contributions to issues which sit at the heart of the 2030 Agenda. The first of these benchmarks will be launched this year, kicking off a process that could see as many as 20 benchmarks released over the next five years. WBCSD has been engaged in ongoing dialogues regarding the development of the World Benchmarking Alliance and continues to inject a private sector perspective into the initiative.

3. The right tools for the job

The good news for business as we move deeper into 2019 is that there never have been more tools and resources available to support the private sector with the meaningful integration of the SDGs into strategic considerations.

Resources such as Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s SDG Index & Dashboards, the World Bank Atlas of SDGs and the SDG Tracker portal all provide valuable and accessible insight into the key SDG challenges facing different geographies, while the SDG Industry Matrix and WBCSD’s growing library of SDG Sector Roadmaps provide inspiration on the key actions that sectors can take to drive SDG progress.

In terms of reporting, the efforts of the U.N. Global Compact and GRI in developing their important "Analysis of the Goals and Targets (PDF)" and "Integrating the SDGs into Corporate Reporting" (PDF) resources also have helped to lay out detailed and structured guidance on what constitutes robust SDG disclosure. All of these resources and others are available to explore via WBCSD’s SDG Business Hub.

4. Science-based targets underpinning the SDGs

While the 17 SDGs and the 169 targets that underpin them are fixed in place until 2030, our understanding of the science that sits behind these targets continues to evolve.

Last year brought the launch of the IPCC’s special report on the impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, which helped to inject fresh urgency around climate-related SDG targets and will need to inform global efforts moving forward. Groundbreaking science and research will continue to crystallize the SDG agenda in 2019; already at this early stage in the year we have seen the publication of the EAT-Lancet Commission report, which points to clear scientific pathways towards a healthy and sustainable global food system; and the landmark report by the International Labor Organization's Global Commission on the Future of Work, which outlines key steps needed to achieve decent and sustainable employment opportunities for all. Businesses will need to interpret this emerging research and work to incorporate it into ongoing SDG alignment efforts and strategies.

5. Which goals will be in the spotlight?

Of course, the SDGs represent a highly interconnected framework that needs to be considered holistically. Having said that, however, several goals look likely to come under enhanced focus during the course of 2019.

SDG 13 (Climate Action) certainly will be making headlines. Not only is it one of the SDGs that will be discussed in detail at the HLPF in July, it also will be the subject of a summit specially convened by the U.N. Secretary-General in September as he looks to mobilize political and economic energy at the highest levels in the face of mounting urgency.

SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities) will be another goal touched on at the HLPF and is already emerging as a key theme for the year with clear links to the current political climate.

A series of benchmarks exploring private sector contributions to sustainable development will be published this year.
Meanwhile, the publication of the EAT-Lancet report and its science-based targets for a healthy and sustainable food system, as well as additional research that is continuing to emerge, is energizing discussion around a number of targets under SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) and SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production).

Finally, SDG 14 (Life Below Water) hopefully will enjoy something of a reversal in fortunes in 2019. A variety of surveys from 2018, including one conducted among WBCSD members and partners (PDF), found SDG 14 to be the least prioritized SDG by business, but the emergence of a variety of multi-stakeholder platforms to tackle marine sustainability issues in recent months, including the new Alliance to End Plastic Waste of which WBCSD is one of the founding strategic partners, should serve to catalyze awareness and action.

6. Finance: the elephant in the room

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, 2019 will see further exploration into who exactly will foot the SDG bill. The U.N. estimates that achieving the goals will require between $5 trillion and $7 trillion of investment per year, against which there is currently a significant shortfall of some $2 trillion to $3 trillion. Analysis suggests that at least $1 trillion of this will have to be mobilized from the private sector.

This is a field that represents significant opportunities for business, and innovations are starting to emerge. However, 2019 will be an important year in terms of helping to scale new mechanisms that can help de-risk and incentivize enhanced levels of private sector investment, particularly in fields such as sustainable infrastructure in frontier markets.

A new online portal hosted by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) provides a useful overview of some key initiatives emerging in this space. Meanwhile, the U.N. Secretary-General will seek to operationalize his Strategy for Financing the 2030 Agenda (PDF), launched in September, and will call on a range of stakeholders including business to advance actionable outcomes ahead of a High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development held around the U.N. General Assembly.

Learn more about the SDGs and sustainability strategy at GreenBiz 19 in Phoenix, Feb. 26 - 28. 

So, there we have an (inexhaustive) overview of some key SDG trends and developments to look out for in what promises to be a busy year ahead. For more information on WBCSD’s approach, visit some of our resources highlighted below:

CEO Guide to the SDGs — Our CEO Guide to the SDGs succinctly lays out the implications of the SDG agenda for the private sector while positioning clear actions that business leaders can take to begin to integrate this agenda into their organizations.

SDG Sector Roadmap Guidelines — These guidelines provide a step-by-step process for a sector to explore, articulate and realize a common vision for how their industry can contribute to the SDGs. The Chemical Sector SDG Roadmap is the first practical application of this work and companies from the forestry and cement sectors also have sector roadmaps scheduled for launch in 2019.

SDG Business Hub -— This online portal captures and packages latest insight, key developments, useful tools and emerging best practice with a view to helping business to effectively navigate the dynamic SDG landscape.

SDG Compass — Developed by WBCSD in collaboration with GRI and the U.N. Global Compact, the SDG Compass provides guidance for companies on how they can align their strategies as well as measure and manage their contribution to the SDGs.

The Good Life Goals — In collaboration with multiple partners including Futerra and United Nations 10YFP, WBCSD contributed to the development of the Good Life Goals which highlight a series of simple actions that anyone can take towards realizing the SDGs.

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