6 things to keep in mind when applying the SDGs

An infographic illustrating interactions that will be instrumental in developing meaningful paths for the Sustainable Development Goals. From a report by the International Council for Science.

Everyone talks about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but does anyone know what they actually mean or how they work?  

Here are six things to consider when working with the SDGs, based on reflections from an industry workshop featuring Alison Howard, head of sustainability at New Zealand power firm Meridian Energy; Lisa Martin, general manager of sustainability at seafood company Sanford; Kate Alcock, climate and resources manager for the Sustainable Business Council; and Barbara Nebel, managing director of consultancy thinkstep in Australasia. The spirit of these reflections is inspired by what's happening in New Zealand, but the "lessons" apply equally as well to businesses in other countries.

1. Don't be daunted

If you've looked at the list of goals and found the prospect of trying to apply them in a business context daunting, you're not alone. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be. The SDGs aren't about reinventing the wheel, and your organization is probably already contributing in more ways than you realize. In fact, just by being a business, you're already contributing significantly to Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth), are probably helping with Goals 1, 2 and 3 (no poverty, zero hunger and good health and well-being), and potentially also Goals 5 and 12 (gender equality and responsible consumption and production). 

"The key is to work out which goals you can impact most and how," said Nebel during the workshop. Generally speaking, the "how" will be unique to your situation but a number of tools are available, including the SDG Compass, to help your organization work out which goals are most applicable.

 2. Use your value chain

The SDGs aren't a one-size fits all approach, nor do they try to be. While SDG 14 (life below water) may have less direct relevance to a Swiss cheese maker than it does to Sanford, your sphere of influence may be greater than you think. Use your business value chain as a sounding board for finding context.

For example, consider you're a manufacturing business in New Zealand.  SDG 1 (no extreme poverty) might seem somewhat redundant given the United Nations definition of poverty is living on less than $1.25/day. However, if your team takes a step back and considers beyond its immediate operations, perhaps it imports materials from countries where workers do live below the poverty line? In this instance, specifying only ethically sourced materials would contribute directly to lowering global poverty. In a New Zealand context, the "no poverty" goal has an underlying target for reducing poverty according to national definitions.

When considering an organization's business, we may also find that individual goals surface multiple times at different stages of the value chain. Focusing on these particular goals could be the opportunity for making the biggest difference.

3. You don’t need to focus on all 17 goals at once

Indeed, of the 17 goals, some will be more relevant to your business than others. Trying to tackle all the goals at once may mean spreading yourself too thin and missing meaningful action. At Meridian Energy, Howard asked: "What are the SDGs where Meridian's existence 'shifts the dial for New Zealand' and makes a massive difference?" Her team identified SDGs 7 and 13 (affordable and clean energy, and climate action) and these have become the guiding North Stars at the company.

Other goals are still very important to Meridian's business (for example, life on land), as well as goals important to its mission as a good corporate citizen (for example, gender equality) to show leadership, but without the same ability to make a big contribution to New Zealand's effort in a global setting. In contrast, for organizations with a large workforce, focusing on gender equality could become a North Star. 

4. How the SDGs add business value

"You can only understand how the SDGs add business value if you understand how sustainability adds business value," Howard said during the workshop. 

It's well documented that purpose-led organizations are better financial performers than other organizations and Meridian Energy recognizes that "through creating value for others, we create value for ourselves and for our shareholders." The idea of the SDGs is popular with the Meridian Energy board; it means rather than the company flag-waving and saying that these things are important, the U.N. is saying that they are important.

"Making the goals tangible at business level can be challenging," said Sanford's Martin. "However, our materiality assessment assisted in this. A number of focus areas raised by stakeholders during this process correlated to the SDGs. The business case for anything that’s considered important to stakeholders becomes more tangible. We can ask ourselves, what do the issues mean for Sanford through our business lens? In this sense, the materiality assessment formed the basis for prioritization of the SDGs. We then translate the global goals down to an organizational level in order to identify opportunities for action."

 5. The SDGs are not yet another framework

While the 17 SDGs have 169 specific targets, they are not indicators, and this is not a yet another new framework to report on. On the contrary. The U.N. encourages you to use the goals to guide your organization's business activities, and to work out what's important to focus on, but reporting on your progress should be done using the existing frameworks and indicators that best suit your business and each issue.

For example, the GRI indicators "G4-EN8: Total water withdrawal by source" or "G4-EN9: Water sources significantly affected by withdrawal of water" are perfectly suited to report on SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation). 

Martin explained that the SDGs are used at Sanford to validate the materiality assessment and help to frame its integrated reporting. However, "it needs to go beyond simply adding the goals to your report where they best fit," she said. In Sanford’s 2016 integrated report (PDF), the relationship of specific business activities and business goals to key SDGs are described.

6. Businesses and universities are driving the agenda

The U.N. stated: "For the goals to be reached, everyone needs to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society and people like you."

The idea is simple: Our actions combine to become the effort of New Zealand in the global setting. Unfortunately, what we're currently missing is information from the government on how the country is performing against the goals, and what actions we are already taking to achieve them. As a result, it's hard for New Zealand businesses to judge where to put their focus to achieve the most impact. Our government has been slow to move and has not yet reported on our combined contributions. 

But activity is underway in other sectors. A cross-sectoral working group including Victoria University, AUT, Hul El, the United Nations Association of New Zealand and SBC are shaping a summit for 300 delegates to inform, excite and mobilize the SDGs in New Zealand. It will take place April 23, to discuss which SDGs should be prioritized for New Zealand.

Hopefully, this will be the kick-start the New Zealand government needs. The feeling is that the longer we wait until we join the significant number of countries (113 in total) who already have reported, or committed to report in 2018, the harder it will be for New Zealand to catch up.

The U.N. SDGs offer an exciting opportunity for government, civil society, NGOs and businesses to work together towards common goals to make the world a better place, for everyone, everywhere, forever.

So get stuck in, choose a goal, make a start and grab a slice of what is consider to be a $12 trillion economic opportunity. Your initial strategy doesn’t have to be perfect, just give it a go. Any action your organization can take towards these goals takes us all closer to the opportunity to live in a better world.