The United Nations has set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve by 2030, addressing challenges from climate change to gender equality.
The goals are recognized as huge opportunities for “transforming our world” and call upon companies to play a lead part in driving change.
However, the business community at large is not fully engaged at this point. Should that change?
The Obstacles to Involvement
Major transformation small feat. It requires companies to overhaul reporting processes, harness data and track effectively. And that’s before they even begin to implement programs to prompt change within their organization. Unsurprisingly, the first number executives look for when measuring a company’s ROI is pure financial performance, and sustainability and other initiatives typically come second to the absolute bottom line.
That’s why tracking SDGs needs to be positioned carefully within the business; not primarily as the ethically or morally right thing to do, but as an opportunity to manage risk and thereby reduce costs. I.e., making a direct connection to investor and shareholder returns. In many cases, it comes down to leadership and finding the right person who understands the real drivers of sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR).
In 2017, additional non-financial reporting is coming into effect for large organizations in the U.K. and reporting will include disclosures on gender diversity. These requirements will support the fifth goal in the sustainable development framework — “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” Programs such as the HeForShe campaign can help organisations mobilize the workforce into addressing these issues. It also helps to offer an aspirational message for businesses and the workforce to help in taking that step forward.
Climate Action Over SDGs
There has been a significant rise in awareness and action around climate change which hasn’t spilled over to the SDGs due to differences between the two agendas. Driven by a ‘local’ focus, climate challenges are seen as having an immediate impact in all communities. The U.N. goals, however, largely emphasize locations that are considered developing or unstable, and where purchasing power is marginal. For example, the objective that tops the SDG list is, “end poverty in all its forms everywhere.”
Sometimes these targets are perceived as nebulous: How do you end hunger and achieve food security in every point on the map? But there’s also a perception that participating in the effort and the subsequent reporting is far too complicated, with 169 SDG indicators alone. That’s why any action needs to broken down at a departmental level within organizations to encourage the adoption of the indicators that relate to the business.
As an example, Schneider Electric has created the Access to Energy program, which helps further the seventh U.N. goal — “ensure access to affordable, reliable , sustainable and modern energy for all.” The company is contributing to poverty alleviation and environmental protection through innovative and economically sustainable business models in sub-Saharan Africa.
Timing and Market Forces
Is there ever going to be a perfect time to set ambitious targets?
Businesses could argue over timing and potential market turbulence ad infinitum, but the reality is that change needs to happen. If companies are feeling pressured by reporting metrics, they should focus on building a framework that makes benchmarking a measure of success. Schneider Electric gauges sustainability performance with its Planet & Society Barometer, for instance, which is based on a number of key performance indicators that enable it to move from information to action.
Many SDGs relate to sustainability metrics that companies are already collecting. With the introduction of new CSR metrics, businesses should approach data collection in a similar, logical way — to ensure its of a standard that’s accountable. Start on a country level and draw all data together in one centralized management system.
Take inspiration from the success stories that are already happening. India, for example, has the potential to become one of the world’s largest producers of green energy and is expected to surpass many developed countries in this endeavor.
Contribted by Toby Crewe, Sustainability Director, Schneider Electric