Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – an ambition too far?

Post Date
28 September 2023
Petra Parizkova
Emily Williams
Read Time
4 minutes
  • ESG advisory

There was an elephant in the room at the United Nations General Assembly Week earlier this month: the lack of progress being made in relation to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Their launch in 2015 was considered a major turning point for the international community. By articulating the common challenges that exist across country borders, it was hoped that a new collaborative spirit could be forged to tackle them. The vision was almost utopian: to create peace, prosperity and sustainability by 2030. Amina Mohamed, Deputy Director-General of the UN and termed the mother of the SDGs, is widely acknowledged as their principal architect and designed them with this ambition in mind: “The SDGs represent humanity’s best investment in resilient, equitable, inclusive and sustainable economies, but also in preventing conflict and crises.”

In some ways, the SDGs have been very successful. The iconic imagery of the 17 global goals has become synonymous with sustainability across cultures, ages, genders, and political movements. The SDGs have also become reference points for governments, businesses and organisations representing the voice of civil society.

Despite these efforts however, actual progress towards achieving any of the goals has been limited. As a recent study from June 2023 identified none of the goals will be achieved if the current slow rate continues, and less than 20% of the underlying targets will be met. So, the question remains: why is there such a disconnect between the prominence and accessibility of the SDGs and the progress made towards meeting them?

It seems that those who have been most involved in trying to achieve these goals are not the actors the SDGs were designed for. UN member states’ engagement with the SDGs has been patchy and varied, with many governments prioritising SDGs based on national and (inevitably short-term) political interests. Given the interconnectedness of the SDGs, this approach is clearly not the solution. Meanwhile, and despite not being the SDGs primary audience, the private sector has been active in leveraging the goals to drive sustainability action. A new report by Accenture identified that the vast number of companies are now deploying the SDGs in some fashion, with 91% having a public commitment to one or more goals, and 78% having identified a business case for advancing one goal.

And although businesses have largely stepped in to fill the vacuum of action left by governments, their own approach has not come without some controversy. Many firms have only engaged with the SDGs superficially across their corporate responsibility programmes, rather than embed the SDGs at the heart of their strategies, helping to inform future investments and decision-making. Some of this has to do with the fact that the measurement framework behind the SDGs is not best suited to a business context so companies have struggled to engage boards in how best to create progress on the issues identified. Many businesses have also adopted the approach of cherry-picking SDGs so enabling them to selectively celebrate their positive impacts on building sustainable growth through job creation, innovation, and investments (SDGs 4, 7, 8, 9, and 11) without truly acknowledging their impact on clean water, climate action, and biodiversity on land and below water (SDGs 13, 6, 14 and 15).

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has echoed these sentiments at this year’s Acceleration Day of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Action Weekend: “This is not the time for incrementalism. This is the time for transformation – with all hands on deck. Let’s get the SDGs back on track.”

We believe businesses continue to have a huge opportunity to play helping accelerating progress on the SDGs:

  • They can plug funding gaps in programmes and initiatives that are trying to create change.
  • They can convene multiple actors to better understand the challenges of impacted communities and develop solutions through local partnerships.
  • They can rally internal and external stakeholders and influence policy makers to help create different operating environments that will be more conducive to progress.
  • They can evolve their business models to meet the ambitions of the SDGs

We understand that business engagement with SDGs is not easy, but we are here to help. Are you interested in finding out how you can better communicate internally and externally on the SDGs? Or maybe the challenge is more across your value chain? Whatever your SDG need, please get in touch.

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