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What are you doing about the Sustainable Development Goals?

By 14th May 2016 Blog, Sustainability 2 Comments
The 17 UN SDGs

According to research we conducted recently among mostly SMEs in Lancashire, it appears that a majority of businesses haven’t even heard of the Sustainable Development Goals, let alone are thinking about how to embrace them. If that’s you, read on as we explain what they are and how to start engaging with them.

Firstly, here’s what our research told us when we asked participants about their awareness of the UN Sustainable Development a goals (SDGs) in an online survey conducted by the North & Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce in March 2016:

4% very aware
25% somewhat aware
30% not very aware
40% not at all aware

We can conclude from this that over two-thirds (70%) of businesses have limited if any awareness of the SDGs – and with awareness that low, it’s a safe bet that these businesses are therefore unlikely to be taking any steps to embrace strategies that will embed SDG principles in their operations.


What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals are the latest iteration of a set of guiding principles that we can trace back to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

The Rio Earth Summit (or UN Conference on Environment and Development to give it its proper name) was the first real international attempt at drawing up action plans and strategies for moving towards a more sustainable pattern of consumption and development. In part, this was a response to the 1987 Bruntland Commission report ‘Our Common Future’ which concluded that human activity was having severe and negative impacts on the planet, and that patterns of growth and development would be unsustainable if they continued unchecked.

Why? Because every aspect of human existence depends solely on the natural resources we have available to us, some of which can only be replenished very slowly and others which are entirely finite. If we consume these too quickly, without finding a way to recycle or renew them, we’ll eventually run out and that will be the end of the human civilisation (at least as we know it now).

The Bruntland report is what gave us the often quoted and now ‘classic’ definition of sustainable development:

“Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The 17 UN SDGs update and expand on previous efforts to define a set of over-arching themes upon which solid improvement action can be based in order to better align development with environmental protection and a host of other societal demands.


What are the business benefits of the SDGs?

We live in a changing world.

Nearly 30 years on from the Bruntland report, we are much more globalised than we were then. The world population has grown from 5 billion to 7.4 billion – up 48% – with a rising middle-class in economies like China, all of which leads to increased consumption of natural resources and greater strain on environmental systems. At the same time, some of the more intransigent problems of poverty and poor health still exist in many parts of the world, even though conditions have improved considerably for many others.

Businesses alone can’t solve all these problems, but that doesn’t stop today’s much more environmentally and socially conscious consumers expecting them to at least try – and try they should.

A growing body of evidence suggests that, whether B2C or B2B, consumers increasingly want to buy from businesses with a ‘purpose beyond profit’ and if that isn’t you, well, frankly, you’re going to find your competitors eating your lunch soon!

Integrating the SDGs into your business is a clear way to differentiate yourself from your rivals, positioning you to grow and thrive. But you’ll also actually make a real and positive difference in the world.

Take the 8th of the Sustainable Development Goals, for instance, which is to ‘promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’ which, among others, has a 2020 target to substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training (NEET). By taking on and training an apprentice, arming them with lifelong transferable skills and giving them an income, you’d be contributing to this directly. Better still, you get a willing worker that can help you achieve more.

The 12th of the Sustainable Development Goals is to ‘ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’ with a 2030 target to substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction and recycling, among others. By doing just that, you’ll not only be playing your part in achieving these aims, but you’ll be saving money too. Win-win.

It might sound daunting at first, and you might not immediately recognise the role your business has because a lot of the SDG language is aimed at national governments whom the UN expects to take the lead, but when you sit back and think about it, it’s clear that all businesses – including SMEs – can and should be thinking carefully about embracing the SDGs and embedding the necessary cultural and business practices to support them.

Want to know more? Visit the UN sustainable development website.

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  • One idea that might make businesses wake up to the opportunities presented by the SDGs would be encouraging them to select 1-3 that they are working on. They could then display a sign or label that would let customers know which SDGs the business best addresses, and invite customers to ask them about it. More advanced would be to set up certification or rating schemes, though these often prove too costly for SME involvement.

    • Lee Petts says:

      Thanks Michelle! That’s very much aligned with the advice we give clients – in fact, our maturity model performance evaluation has been deliberately constructed so as to consider the SDGs. And it’s quite reasonably priced, so accessible to SMEs. More here.

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