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United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: A Driving Force for Business

The UN SDGs are a reflection of a world that is increasingly becoming more concerned with sustainability, the health of our planet and well-being of society. Business leaders should understand the goals that the UN have established and align their sustainability initiatives accordingly. This article provides a useful overview of the SDGs and is the first in a series of articles on how companies can align their own values and practices with the SDGs.

What Does SDG Mean?

Over the past few decades the world has faced record-high temperatures, hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, species loss, and forest destruction. In 2015, the member states of the UN passed the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 goals to help achieve an equitable, sustainable future for all by 2030. These goals were created to address the climate and social justice challenges the world is facing and to help achieve measurable solutions. The SDGs are a roadmap to collective action and creating partnerships between governments, corporations, nonprofit organizations, and academia.

To better understand the demand for the SDGs and to envision the world as it was, as it is, and how it could be, watch this excellent ‘Nations United’ SDG overview video.

The SDGs are all-encompassing, going beyond addressing tangible environmental issues to social issues that are difficult to measure and define such as no poverty, gender equality, and peace and justice. They each play off of the others with success in one goal driving achievements in the other. They are interdisciplinary and combined together create a cohesive vision for a sustainable future by 2030.

The 17 SDGs are:

The Case for Business Support of the SDGs

Businesses play an important role in economic, environmental, and social facets of the global marketplace. However, businesses rely on thriving societies, economies, and natural resources for their operations. If the world continues to go down our current path, businesses will experience significant capital loss and inability to create their products and services. Adopting the SDGs into company business practices will create a more resilient and thriving economy, secure operations for the foreseeable future and incorporate better corporate social responsibility.

All businesses will benefit from the sustainable world the SDGs seek to achieve. The Business and Sustainable Development Commission released a report finding that sustainable business models that incorporate the SDGs may create up to 380 million more jobs and yield up to $12 trillion in new economic gains.

Perhaps the most clear correlation between the SDGs and businesses is SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth; however, each SDG influences businesses in some way both on the macro and micro level.  Investing in the health and education of citizens (SDGs 3&4) will yield more valuable and specialized workers. Resolving inequality and adding more women to the workforce (SDGs 5&10) will offer new perspectives. Building sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11) will be able to withstand the pressures of natural disasters and utilize its natural resources as efficiently as possible, and creating affordable and clean energy (SDG 7) will save companies thousands in the long-run by using energy the Earth already generates.

As previously mentioned, stakeholders value companies who prioritize environmental and social justice in their operations. Research reflects that 78% of customers would adjust their buying behavior based on whether a company has a signed commitment to the SDGs. Demonstrating a strong commitment to the SDGs will show stakeholders that they prioritize global, environmental, and social progress and resiliency. When a company demonstrates they are not only focused on financial gain but setting an example for being an excellent steward for innovation, equity, and responsibility, it has the potential to drive greater profit and public investment. This commitment will also bring more investors who seek to invest in a company who has a demonstrated ability to measure risks, adapt to potential challenges and create advantages in the market.

The Top SDGs for Business

Though the SDGs each influence businesses in some way, a few of the SDGs stand out as having the greatest, measurable impact. These SDGs are ones where private and public companies can make a huge difference:

  • SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy
  • SDG 8: Decent work & economic growth
  • SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  • SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities
  • SDG 12: Responsible consumption & production
  • SDG 13: Climate action

Implementing SDGs: Model Examples

Some companies are already making advancements toward incorporating these SDGs into their business practices without even realizing it. Several Green Business Bureau members are excellent examples of sustainable business practices tied to SDGs.

NM Group

NM Group is transforming the electricity industry with their commitment to green energy (SDG 7). NM Group uses computer-based analysis to determine transmission line integrity and onsite conditions. Improving the efficiency of the electricity network saves energy and improves large scale energy security. They are also an excellent example of community impact by engaging with their employees and outside community to create positive change. They offer online webinars and virtual training for consultants, engineers, and line service managers. Additionally, through Community Canopy, NM Group funds tree plantings to help energy conservation and climate resiliency. Though not explicitly stated, this is a demonstrated commitment to SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy, SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth, SDG 13: Climate action, and SDG 4: Quality education.

You can learn more about the NM Group in our GBB member story: NM Group: Securing Energy Supply for a Greener Tomorrow.

Western Container Sales

Western Container Sales offers eCommerce purchasing and renting of used or like-new “one trip” shipping containers. The company works directly with international shipping suppliers to extend the life of shipping containers by selling them for storage purposes. This avoids the energy-intensive scrap metal recycling process and conserves energy and virgin resources needed to create new shipping containers. Operating their business completely online has enabled them to avoid the energy and expenses that would otherwise come from an office space as well as the GHG emissions from commuting. These initiatives demonstrate a commitment to SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production, SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure, and SDG 13: Climate action.

You can learn more about the Western Container Sales  in our GBB member story: Western Container Sales: Creating Value Through Upcycling and Waste Reduction.

SDG Knowledge Resources

IISD Knowledge Hub

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has an excellent SDG Knowledge Hub where you can find updates on SDG achievements and more information on how to take action.

The next step is branding your company and its specific initiatives as being committed to the SDGs. You should do an honest assessment of your company’s operations to include both your positive and negative influence on each of the SDGs. This will give you an accurate picture of your strengths and areas that need improvement and focus. You should then set clear and specific targets for how you will achieve progress and when you will complete it by.

SDG Indicators

Targets can be set based upon the global targets for each SDG found on the SDG Indicator page. This requires transparency to customers, employees, investors and other stakeholders to prevent greenwashing by releasing regular reports indicating what your company hoped to achieve, measures taken to achieve the goals, effectivenesse and the next year’s plan. This will set your company apart as an industry leader in sustainability and the SDGs and ensure your continued success.

Businesses Need to Take Action

It is not enough for the private sector to simply adapt to challenges as they arise but they must take part in mitigation strategies to help prevent environmental decline, social injustice and disasters from happening in the first place. Employees demand it. Customers demand it.

Consumers reflect this importance of “doing good” in business by discontinuing support for a company that does not align with their personal values, with environmental values at the top of the list. Companies are incorporating social responsibility, environmental stewardship, and gender and race equity into their business plans in response to this demand. Combined with their genuine commitment, companies are following today’s best sustainability practices to reduce their environmental impact, drive real change, and stand out as business leaders and innovative thinkers. Aligning company practice with the values and objectives of the UN SDGs is one powerful way to build a successful green business and a more sustainable and equitable society.

Executive Summary

Every business leader, executive and sustainability manager needs to understand the SDGs and commit to them. Here’s a simple playbook for getting started:

  • Educate yourself, fellow executives and employees on the SDGs (UN SDG Overview).
  • Identify your company’s initiatives that are aligned with SDGs.
  • Implement the most impactful initiatives. Green Business Bureau has over 400 to choose from.
  • Set measurable targets. Here’s a sample sustainability scorecard.
  • Report on progress.
  • Communicate with stakeholders on your company’s commitment to SDGs.
  • Be an ambassador in the business world for sustainability.

You may find that your company has already adopted initiatives that drive SDG action. Further educate yourself and your colleagues about the UN’s goals to identify which goals are most appropriately aligned with your company’s processes. It is up to you to help turn your business into a platform for good.

About the Author

Leah Mowery

GBB Green Ambassador

Leah Mowery is a content writer for the Green Business Bureau who is passionate about using creativity and storytelling to relay the importance of sustainability. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal where she discovered a love for sustainable development. She fostered this interest in her Master’s in Global Sustainability program with a concentration in Climate Change at the University of South Florida. She enjoys painting, reading and all forms of outdoor recreation.

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