Business progress on the SDGs: time for a reset

2023 will see us pass the halfway point in the SDG delivery period.

A recent UN study on progress on 36 of the 169 targets that underpin the 17 goals paints a bleak picture.  On 10 of these targets, there has been a deterioration of progress and there has been limited or no progress on a further 11 targets. Only three of the targets reviewed are on track, with the remaining 13 targets having seen some progress but needing accelerated action.

Since their launch in 2015, the SDGs have been a key part of corporate sustainability conversations, and there have been a plethora of initiatives to push businesses into action. Given the stalling progress made, and the need for all parties to play a role in delivering the SDGs, it is a pivotal moment to ask how we can ensure corporates play a fuller role in making the necessary progress on the SDGs through to 2030.

Given there is a $135 trillion funding shortfall to reach the SDGs, it could not be more important that businesses play a full role in their delivery. To do this, we see two main changes that are needed in corporate approaches to the SDGs.

Going beyond alignment to target-level contributions

To date, there is an overriding sense that corporates have focused on how their businesses align with the SDGs. This has often resulted in rather vague SDG mapping exercises that conflate a high-level corporate intent with the high-level focus of one of the 17 goals, making the alignment somewhat meaningless.

To make SDG alignment more tangible, companies need to focus on their actual and potential contributions to the achievement of the goals: this means reviewing the 169 specific targets underpinning each SDG, as these are the real intent of the goals, and what success will be judged against in 2030.

For example, companies often use their diversity and inclusion programmes to say they align with SDG5 “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. Whilst it’s difficult to argue against the broad alignment, it’s worth going deeper into some of the targets and indicators to measure progress and show a business’ actual contribution.

Target 5.5 seeks to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life” with one of the measures of progress being the proportion of women in managerial positions, something a company can tangibly and demonstrably contribute to, rather than merely showing alignment.

Moving from a retrospective to proactive approach

Typically, SDG alignment approaches answer the question: “which of the SDGs do our business activities support?” Whilst this can be helpful, it tends to treat the SDGs as an afterthought, once wider business strategy processes are complete. Instead, we recommend embedding the SDGs into business and sustainability strategy development processes, and answer the question: “What could we do to help achieve the SDGs?”

This could lead, for example, to a Europe-focused food company to really consider its role in reducing hunger and access to food (SDG target 2.1), and ending malnutrition (SDG target 2.2) globally, and how it can develop its business to play a key role in tackling these issues. Likewise, it could see a technology company consider its wider role in promoting basic technology infrastructure, such as access to the internet (SDG target 17.8) and mobile phone ownership (SDG target 5.b).

The adoption of this proactive approach to the SDGs should lead to the development of new business models, products and services, partnerships and market expansion, in line with achieving the SDGs, rather than thinking through how a business as usual approach can support the broad aims of the goals.