2017 has been a memorable year. After US President Donald Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on 1 June 2017, the Rubicon was crossed. Businesses of all sizes from around the world, not just Fortune 500 companies, stepped up to voice their dismay and renewed commitments to the part they could play to address climate change and the other societal and economic issues which, in one way or another, are all impacted upon by climate change.
This being the case, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should serve as the key framework and benchmark for companies in 2018 and beyond, to drive their commitments and contribution to a sustainable future – not for philanthropic reasons but as an integral part of business strategy.
However, a new report released by Corporate Citizenship is concerning. It shows that whilst the number of companies reporting against the SDGs is on the rise, research indicates that there is a clear gap emerging between thinking and action, with tangible plans and active involvement in collaborations on the SDGs stalling over the last 12 months.
For example, the report shows a 7 percent increase in the number of organisations saying that they are “aware of the SDGs, but have no plans to do anything about them” between 2016 (13 percent) and 2017 (20 percent).
So why is this happening?
We hear of various challenges from businesses, from not knowing where to start with such a broad agenda and so many tools ‘on the market’, to difficulties in integrating the Goals into current strategies. Learning from others is always valuable. For example, I like the approach Walgreens Boots Alliance have taken to align their approach to the SDGs and drive action – it’s broad which suits the scope of their business and helpfully they have outlined the five key steps they have taken.
Yet it is only when the SDGs become a core part of a business’ goals and investment decisions, that change will truly take place. This requires alignment with products, services and core capabilities so the business can see the commercial, as well as the social value. As is the case with Unilever, having long-since integrated sustainability into its purpose and products. Anyone who follows Paul Polman on LinkedIn will know what a fantastic advocate he is for the SDGs – because they make perfect sense for our world and for his business. And this is when reporting serves as a critical tool to measure business’ contribution towards meeting the Goals. I do so hope 2018 will see a move away from companies viewing the SDGs as a handy framework with some pretty pictures, around which to retrofit and report existing activity, when their intention is to drive meaningful business action and collaboration. As I have written in blogs and articles previously, the time has come for a new type of reporting, a blueprint which enables companies to put their performance into macro context. The SDGs should be no different.
Materiality and the SDGs
But back to that ‘gap’ mentioned earlier between thinking and action by companies. We are increasingly recommending to our clients that SDG mapping be included into materiality assessments to identify opportunities and help them to prioritise efforts in the right place. If the materiality process is doing its job (and isn’t just ticking a box), this will enable business decisions and investment in the right areas. But we feel strongly that the process needs to evolve in order that it can have a greater impact and better enables companies to keep up with fast-changing operating environments and societal expectations. Integrating SDG mapping into materiality is one example of how we’re looking to evolve the process for our clients, use of data analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools for ‘continuous’ materiality and real-time insights another. So let’s make 2018 a year to remember – for the right reasons.