What do Unilever, Oxfam, Cambridge University and the German Federal Government have in common? They all report against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are becoming the common DNA of business, government and civil society around the world. But what are the SDGs? And how can your organisation add the SDGs to its genetic make-up?

What are the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

The SDGs represent a collective hope for a better future. Adopted by 193 countries in 2015, the SDGs set out 17 global goals that together sketch a shared blueprint for action on sustainable development.

These Global Goals call for worldwide action among governments, businesses and civil society to end poverty and create a life of dignity and opportunity for all, within the biophysical boundaries of the planet.

What’s the evolutionary imperative?

The world is changing. It is necessary for businesses to adapt. Society expects companies to be socially conscious citizens of the world – 69% of Australian employees agree that businesses should care about their social impact as much as their financial performance (Australian Return on Action Report, Atlassian-PwC). Companies that fail to evolve will fight an uphill battle against communal scrutiny, risking a loss of their social licence to operate and facing costly regulation.

The imperative isn’t only driven by downside risk. There’s also an abundance of opportunity. The SDGs are anticipated to generate at least $12 trillion worth of market opportunities by 2030 – according to the Business and Sustainable Development Commission’s Better Business, Better World report. Responsible investment is a growing pool of capital that companies can access with the SDG’s underpinning investors’ Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) considerations (see more on this in The SDG Investment Case, Principles for Responsible Investment-PwC).

How can I incorporate the SDGs into my company’s DNA?

  1. Understand the SDGs
    The 17 global goals, accompanied by 169 targets, can be overwhelming at first. Familiarising yourself with the SDGs is the first step in incorporating them. The official Global Goals website is a great resource to drill into each goal and target.The SDGs are a holistic framework for change. Goals can’t be looked at in isolation. Understand that progress against one goal can positively and negatively contribute to another. The International Science Council’s Guide to SDGs Interactions demonstrates the complexity of these interactions.Looking to other global sustainability instruments can help deepen your understanding of the SDGs. You’ll be able to find even more guidance from the UN Global Compact Principles and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
  2. Define your company’s priority SDGs
    To determine your priorities, you will need to look at both a) where your largest negative impacts are in your value chain and b) where the greatest opportunities lie to make a positive contribution based on your core competencies. Use the SDG Compass to help inform your analysis.Consider where these impacts and contributions occur in your value chain, and the level of control and influence you have over those parts of the chain.
    Most importantly, open a dialogue with your stakeholders – those impacted by your operation, experts, and those within your organisation. Stakeholder engagement underpins principled prioritisation. By listening to a wide net of voices, what’s important to your business will become clear. The AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standards set the bar for best practice stakeholder engagement.
  3. Set goals
    Business goals, with appropriate measures, provide direction to your company and clearly communicate your sustainability commitment to the wider world.It can be tempting to focus on what can be achieved right now. Don’t. This can limit your aspiration and leave stakeholders dissatisfied. Take an ‘outside-in approach’, listen to stakeholders, look to existing guidelines and talk to experts outside your organisation. The Science-Based Targets initiative and Future-Fit benchmarks are external science-based initiatives that can calibrate your goal setting to societal needs.Take the plunge and make your commitment public. You’ll inspire your people and impress your audience. It’s the beginning of splicing the SDGs into your DNA.
  4. Take action
    With goals in place, your organisation is ready to take action. Empower the sustainability leaders and champions in your company. If you look, these champions are easy to find.Take inspiration from peers by looking at case studies found here and seek guidance from the UN Global Compact’s Business Reporting on SDGs: Analysis and Targets report which sets out recommended business actions to achieve each of the 169 targets.You might find that doing this work is a little unfamiliar. Collaborating and partnering with other companies or NGOs can help build your SDGs competencies, grow your expertise and extend your network.
    You’ll also want to set up ways to collect data and evaluate your programs against your goals and indicators for the next step.
  5. Report progress and evaluate
    The first step to reporting is figuring out what you will report on – your material topics. Best practice is to conduct a materiality assessment based on the GRI Standards that looks at the significance of your impacts, and the influence each topic has on stakeholder decision making.The aim is to communicate your progress (or lack of progress) against your goals to your stakeholders. Transparency and honesty are scary but are critical to good reporting. Sharing your successes alongside your failures builds trust in your actions and what you say. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress – your stakeholders don’t expect 100%, they mostly want to see progress of some kind.
    Reporting will also help your organisation evaluate its programs and make the necessary tweaks to achieve your set goals.

It’s no perfect science

Integrating the SDGs into your company can seem like a big undertaking, but the task is smaller when you take one step at a time. The steps above provide a summary of what this journey can look like.

There is no perfect pathway to achieving the SDGs but taking any step at all is already a step closer to making them part of your DNA.

Ryan Ong
Ryan Ong
Senior Consultant, Currie
As someone fascinated by data and the truths (and untruths) it tells, Currie senior consultant Ryan Ong is a strong believer in evidence-based decision-making. As an idealist turned realist, Ryan is interested in seeing how we can make the right decisions for positive social change. In his spare time Ryan geeks out with board games and a good book.

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