Let's not greenwash the SDGs

Green laundry on a line
ShutterstockAfrica Studio
You say your company is "aligned" with the SDGs? Point to metrics and achievements instead.

We’ve been fans of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) since they were launched almost two years ago. They are truly this generation’s moon shot. Participation by the business community is critical to reaching the SDGs by 2030, and we are bullish on helping businesses make that happen. So what’s the problem?

In the last year, many government agencies and NGOs have been working to bring businesses to the SDGs table. Businesses all across the globe are trying to figure out what they can do to contribute to (and benefit from) laudable efforts to solve these big problems. All good so far. 

With all this attention, the media noise has pushed SDGs to buzzword status. And that’s part of the problem. It’s not a buzzword. I was at a conference recently where a sustainability professional told me he was being pressured to find a way to link the company’s sustainability and philanthropic work to each and every SDG. More recently I saw a report from another company that claimed they are supporting every single SDG through their sustainability work — directly or indirectly. Sounds good, right?

The answer is, "Yes, but." We don’t think that linking the SDGs to business action was intended to be a contest to see if you can check all the boxes. It was intended to be a catalyst for action, innovation, transformation and real change.

The SDGs identify real-world problems and proposed targets, with specific metrics to evaluate the success of solutions. So if you are going to claim credit (to boost reputation or otherwise), don’t you need to back up the claim with numbers? By what net amount did your action actually move the needle? Just saying you’re aligned or even making a charitable donation is a far cry from the concrete, context-based metrics some companies are using to measure progress toward sustainability.

Here’s an example to clarify: A company contributes money to provide school lunches for 40 children for a year, but pays 20 employees a wage below a living wage. Those employees’ collective 55 children qualify for a school lunch program that would be unnecessary had the employees been paid a living wage. You may think, well, 40 children got lunch, that’s better than nothing. But doesn’t it matter that the company is, in a sense, seeking applause for feeding 40, but neither acknowledging its role in perpetuating the problem nor taking responsibility for providing a socially defined means (the living wage) for solving the problem for its employees’ offspring?

Of course, philanthropy is awesome and results in lots of good being done in the world. But giving money is not enough or even really the point. You need concrete data to determine whether and how a problem was solved and in what (net) way you were responsible for the solution.

The connection can and should be clearly stated, because the SDGs are clearly defined. For example, no poverty, SDG 1, isn’t a goal to make people a little less poor; and it isn’t about making people wealthy.

It’s a three-part goal defined as getting rid of extreme poverty (people living on less than $1.25/day); creating a poverty line definition, implementing safety-net systems, within each country; and raising everyone above his or her nationally defined poverty line. If you’re working on SDG 1, you need to be able to provide metrics on how you moved one of these three needles.

Here’s an example of how Unilever connects to SDG 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all; particularly the sub-goal: By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all. The company documents the countries in which its water purification products are available (places where unsafe water is a significant issue), the annual number of liters of water purified to safety for drinking, and the cost of its purification products benchmarked to demonstrate that they are more affordable than boiling water or buying bottled water.

In this way, Unilever provides meaningful metrics for looking at how much affordable clean drinking water its products account for being providing to places where access to clean water is not universal or equitable. The company even footnotes that it changed the metric from people reached to liters purified in order to provide a more meaning quantification of how it is part of the solution to a very complex human problem that the company understands very well. Expect more solutions in the future.

We know there are situations where the economics of our current system work only because, or at the expense, of the entrenched problems the SDGs aim to solve. That’s precisely why the SDGs exist. They are established to inspire us to figure out how to stop benefiting from these problems and find solutions for them in new models (including microfinance, wellness programs, innovative processes) for how we conduct business.

So please don’t greenwash the SDGs. Don’t just tell the world that you’re "aligned" with the SDGs. They are too important to be watered down to marketing claims. Instead, point to an achievement, or a company goal that you are working on, with context-based metrics, that connect directly to and move one of the needles toward one of the targets established in an SDG. Identify all the ways you are part of the problem. If you currently attack problems that you are a part of through philanthropy, track how your philanthropy creates a net gain toward an SDG. Talk about it in context, just as you would talk about buying offsets while you work on solutions to lower your GHG emissions.

We do not yet have all the metrics we need to connect business activities to the SDG indicators, but lots of people are working on this. There are existing systems that get partway in connecting directly the SDGs. You can see this in some of the work SDG Compass has put together. And there are some good resources available for thinking about how to do this. 

My company, Sustrana, is teaming up with a group at Villanova University’s College of Engineering Sustainable Engineering Program to develop and compile business metrics that fill the gaps and help businesses make more meaningful connections to the SDGs. For more information on this work and how you can help, get in touch. We hope more companies will create value by adding to their sustainability management systems the SDGs that each company actually can help achieve, and start tracking meaningful metrics. The goal is for businesses to be able to provide meaningfuluseful data and inspire more action on these important world goals.