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What are Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) comprise of 17 key targets that outline a set of goals for global development and were formally adopted by the UN in 2015 to update the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Why are they important?

The SDGs provide a more comprehensive framework for global development than the MDGs, most notably through the accompanying 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that  focuses on People, Peace, Planet and Prosperity.

The SDGs also hallmark an important juncture in the process to achieving global development, by widening the scope for participation among actors across the international arena. While the MDGs were specifically targeted at governments, the SDGs aim to achieve key targets through collective action from governments, intergovernmental organisations, NGOs, corporations and individuals. By establishing a collaborative intergovernmental strategy, the SDGs also present an exciting opportunity for businesses seeking to expand upon and improve their CSR.

The growing importance of the SDGs to business activity, most notably in shaping CSR strategies, is demonstrated by the increasing emphasis placed on the SGDs by high-profile consultancy firms. In 2017, KPMG identified the increasing role of The SDGs for corporate responsibility as a key trend in their extensive Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility that covers CSR activity across 4,900 firms and 49 countries.

The importance of SDGs for CSR is further supported by a recent report by PwC that found that 71% of surveyed businesses plan on developing measures to try to meet the SDGs. The same report also found 78% of surveyed citizens stated that they would be more likely to purchase goods or services from firms that have formally committed to the SDGs.

Focusing on the SDGs allows companies to address a significant challenge facing multi-national corporations – how to devise an effective CSR approach when your company operates across multiple jurisdictions? For companies with cross-border business operations, developing a cohesive CSR approach may be difficult, however, the SDGs are inherently universal and can therefore, provide a suitable remedy to such issues.

Moreover, given the increasing importance that greater accountability and transparency has for consumers, companies can respond to these demands by committing to the SDGs. This is an effective way to foster a sense of community because businesses are working alongside governments and individuals to achieve common targets. Consumers are also more likely to be invested in a firm’s CSR activities when they are equally committed to achieving the same set of shared goals.

How can companies incorporate SDG’s into CSR strategies?

The SDGs covers a broad spectrum of issues ranging from climate change, gender inequality and the eradication of poverty. The PwC report mentioned above found that surveyed businesses weighted the following areas as the top 5 (in order) for which their business and value chain would have the strongest impact:

  1. Decent work and Economic Growth
  2. Climate Action
  3. Industry Innovation and Infrastructure
  4. Quality Education
  5. Good Health and Wellbeing

Further to this, the PwC report also found that despite an impressive enthusiasm for the goals among firms, few companies have yet to commit to full implementation of all 17. Instead, the vast majority of the businesses that were surveyed stated a preference for a selective application. Whilst this may appeal to many businesses by way of facilitating greater flexibility for companies who want to focus only on specific targets, PwC advises against this. Instead they advocate a holistic embrace of the goals and highlight the high approval rating among citizens, including 90% of citizens who said that it was important for companies to sign up to the SDGs.

PwC also argued that by only committing to a fraction of the SDGs, firms demonstrate to consumers that their support for sustainable development is superficial and hence their CSR effort is more likely to be interpreted as a self-interested PR campaign rather than a genuine reflection of a company’s ideals and values. Thus, if firms are truly invested in sustainable development and improving transparency and accountability, they should approach implementation of the SDGs as a single framework that includes all 17 goals.

For most companies, however it may be unrealistic to expect the initial implementation of the SDGs to involve an all-encompassing strategy for meeting the 17 targets outlined by the UN. A short-term strategy is more likely to centre around specific targets, perhaps those that already align with their existing CSR activities. This is a useful way for companies to make the transition, paving the way for a longer-term approach through which they commit holistically to all 17 SDGs.

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