Why the SDGs are an opportunity companies can't afford to ignore

Graphic of all 17 SDGs
United Nations

The Global Goals for sustainable development were launched Friday, but the opportunity for business is only just starting to be realized. As Beyoncé joined the Citizen Festival in Central Park, messages from Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio were blasted out to a crowd that topped 60,000.

It’s easy to forget that the next 15 years will require a massive effort to deliver the goals, not least by companies that are expected to play a central role. Our research suggests that while many organizations have heard about them, few are clear on what business can do in response. That needs to change, because the goals represent a clear business opportunity for all companies.

The SDGs are a new, de facto standard for businesses to design, measure and account for their contribution to sustainable development. Many aspects of the SDGs make them different from their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

One is their scope: The SDGs cover more issues for both developing and developed countries. Many topics, such as economic growth, are fundamental to business success.

Another difference is the role of the private sector. Industry was one of nine major groups that helped develop the SDGs and businesses will be looked upon as a crucial partner for delivery.

It's clear that there is fair amount of interest in the SDGs from the business community. Some of our clients, such as Mars, Pearson and Unilever, already have responded to the launch. For others, the opportunity is not yet apparent. Corporate Citizenship undertook research in August to find out how companies were preparing for the launch of the goals. Hundreds of organizations from around the world responded. We found that:

  • Nearly a quarter of practitioners working in business say that while they were aware of the global goals, they have no current plans to do anything about them.
  • A further four in 10 are exploring the implications  but not yet taking any action.
  • Just one in five say their company is involved in a collaboration on the SDGs.
  • Sixteen percent say their business is not aware of them.

Over the coming years, we expect these numbers to change as more companies realize the potential opportunities from the SDGs. There is a clear business case for taking action on the issues that matter at a global level.

Our new report, "From 'My World' To 'Our World' — What the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Mean for Business," outlines the five things that businesses can do to realize the opportunity from the global goals.

1. Firstly, companies can line up the SDGs and assess the implications for their business today. They should consider how existing policies, processes and programs align with the goals, and identify any gaps. A rigorous assessment can identify risks and tangible opportunities.

2. Secondly, the SDGs can be the stimulus for action. Whether it’s launching a new community program or refreshing the sustainability strategy, companies should ask: Can delivery of the SDGs play a part? Using the SDGs to "inform strategy development" was the top activity that practitioners in our survey said they expected their organizations to undertake over the next few years.

3. Thirdly, the SDGs can be a tool for setting targets. With a high level of buy-in from so many global organizations, the goals should be part of setting new objectives, or reviewing existing ones.

4. Fourthly, there is impact measurement — a growing priority for many businesses. Having data helps to improve performance, and also to drive a more meaningful dialogue with stakeholders. We have been using the SDGs as a framework for impact measurement with a number of multinationals in recent months. It throws up some fascinating challenges around measurement and opens up opportunities to develop better metrics.

5. Finally, there is external communications, such as reporting. Given the rising stakeholder interest, we expect the goals to become a new framework against which some companies will align their reports, just as the MDG index (or GRI index) has been used by many to date. Others may decide to produce stand-alone SDG Reports on their contribution to the goals.

The Global Goals provide a business opportunity. They set a de facto standard against which business progress can be judged. Companies have to start with what they are doing today  their material issues and existing priorities. That’s what we mean by "my world." But the SDGs are the gateway to move beyond “my world” to thinking about global priorities, "our world."

Companies need to explore the territory between what they are doing today, and the potential to make a bigger contribution to our world through the global goals. Over the next 15 years, we hope to see many more companies stepping up to the challenge and opportunity of the Global Goals