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Insights for quantifying SDG ambitions

The new SDG Ambition fronted by the United Nations Global Compact encourages companies to integrate targets for the Sustainable Development Goals into their core business management strategy.

SDG imagery in an airport

It’s been well-established that businesses are not on track to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. While 84 percent of businesses surveyed by the United Nations (UN) said they are acting on the SDGs, only 39 percent of their corporate goals are aligned to societal and environmental needs. 

"With or without COVID, we are not on plan to attain the SDGs," said Sue Allchurch, chief of outreach and engagement at the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), during last week’s GreenBiz webcast on this topic. "The ambition is not high enough." 

To accelerate progress towards meeting the SDGs globally, the UNGC — in partnership with consulting company Accenture and software firm SAP this year launched the SDG Ambition program. 

SDG Ambition encourages companies to set ambitious corporate targets aligned with the SDGs and to integrate them into their core business management strategy in order to improve the likelihood that they will be achieved. It is a six-month accelerator initiative that enables companies to move past commitments aiming for incremental progress and towards those aiming for transformative change. Organizations of all sizes are qualified to participate.

The accelerator program consists of four parts: understanding SDG ambitions; prioritization and goal setting; integration and enabling technologies; and company support. 

Michael Hughes, manager of sustainability and responsible business at Accenture, highlighted the importance for companies to establish specific SDG-related goals. "Ambitious goals and visions get people motivated to work together and break down silos," he said. 

To support the creation of the SDG Ambition accelerator program, Accenture consulted with UNGC business leaders and partner organizations to translate potential corporate actions related the SDGs into 10 initial business benchmarks that can provide organizations with concrete targets for integrating human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption principles into core business and operations areas. These benchmarks range from ensuring all employees earn a living wage to eliminating the discharge of hazardous pollutants and chemicals and beyond. 

A consultation and leadership group made up of nonprofits, UNGC member companies and global experts is being established to offer additional input on the benchmarks before they are finalized, along with industry-specific guidance.

Anita Varshney, vice president of purpose and brand experience at SAP, highlighted that a company’s mindset shift when it comes to integrating SDG-related commitments into core business principles is key. To drive cultural change within a business, Anita said all employees — from managers to supply chain teams — must work together and commit to hitting the targets for the change to become systemic.

"The more you democratize the purpose of sustainability within your people and culture, the more willing they are to change systems and processes," Varshney said.

Successful integration requires SDG benchmarks to be operationalized in a systematic way, Varshney said. Granular sustainability measurements specific to each business process are needed to identify industry nuances and to determine actionable goals. Sustainability measurements might include data collection about an organization’s compensation gap, for example, or its waste production by material.

Varshney outlined a step-by-step process for how SDG benchmarks can be operationalized. Once benchmarks are established, pathways, actions and KPIs need to be developed that are appropriate for that business. Integration also requires business leaders to consider the organization’s readiness through the domains of people and technology, she said. 

Ultimately, all the speakers agreed that establishing clear goals related to taking action on the SDGs is necessary to drive the cultural transformation required for employees from all levels of business to push for institutional change that is sustainable. 

"It’s no longer enough to have a nice, beautiful report for stakeholders without proper projects, and stories behind them," Varshney said. "This is how we are making an impact."

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