Two years on from the launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, many companies around the world are still grappling with the how best to implement them. While the broad and positive purpose of the SDGs is clear to all, finding the most effective ways to take advantage of the opportunities they present can be less obvious.
Principally, the SDGs are a great way for large organisations to make a strong and public commitment to sustainable development - and the momentum behind doing so is building with more and more companies signing up every month. Once this commitment is made, much of the value lies in using the SDGs to establish a shared common purpose and a shared language in which to frame that purpose.
Below we discuss a couple of areas in which leaders (including our clients) are incorporating the SDGs into their sustainability strategies and finding ways to maximise their potential. From board level buy-in to communicating with front line staff or customers, the SDGs are supporting companies in having more meaningful conversations about sustainability.
Redefining what matters most
For many companies materiality is nothing new, and indeed, for a great many others, regularly assessing material issues and validating their overall approach to sustainability has become a business-as-usual activity. The SDGs can be a useful lens through which to collectively review and reaffirm – both internally and externally – what matters most to a company and its stakeholders in the long term. Mapping a company’s material issues against the SDGs can help to strip away much of the distracting background noise from all those year-to-year, hot topic issues and controversies that can suck away limited time and focus.
As a whole, the SDGs are fairly all encompassing in scope, so it’s appropriate to discuss which ones are most relevant to a company’s particular business activities, its stakeholders, its geographical reach and impact areas (both positive and less so). Once a company has assessed and selected the SDGs that are most relevant to them, these can then be used as a shared platform for working on where an organisation can make the most focused and meaningful positive contributions to those goals. The SDGs offer a means to establishing a shared long-term vision between a company and its stakeholders.
The recent sustainability reporting of the FTSE study found that WPP demonstrates exceptional industry partnership and engagement with the United Nations through the launch of ‘Common Ground’, a collaboration between the six biggest advertising agencies in the world, in support of the SDGs. Through this initiative, it is using the power of communication to help increase awareness and make progress in the sustainable development agenda.
Communicating sustainability across a diverse business
Multinationals are by their very nature geographically diverse. This means that business units and customers in different countries and regions often have different priorities. While some might feel climate change is the most pressing issue in say the Caribbean or the South Pacific, employees and consumers in other regions will feel more strongly about other topics such as gender equality, clean water or education.
The SDGs offer an elegant solution to discuss what is most important to people in different parts of the world. At group level, an organisation may commit to over a dozen of the SDGs, but at a country level this focus can be significantly narrowed to create more momentum and enthusiasm around one or two SDGs that are of most importance to that area. This approach can be used to straightforwardly align selected SDGs to the most appropriate investments, projects and campaigns most relevant to different countries, regions and business units.
There are of course further benefits to embracing the SDGs and we will be returning to this topic – as well as discussing how a company might begin to track progress against its selected SDGs – in the near future.