In the two years since their announcement, the UN Sustainable Development Goals are now the subject of regular discussion and action amongst many global companies. They have been used both as a template against which to measure progress in sustainability, a sense-check to look again at the human and environmental footprint, but perhaps more importantly a way in which organisations can start to bring together key disciplines which have historically been separate. Business strategy, brand communications, CSR, sustainability and human resources.
Covering a wide spectrum of relevant sustainable development topics – such as poverty,
health, education, climate change and environmental degradation – the SDGs can help to connect business strategies with global priorities. Yet among SMEs the level of interest has not been as acute.
Here are what we see as some key benefits of the SDGs for business:-
Connecting the Dots Through Planetary Purpose
There’s a lot of talk about purpose today. Individually, we all reach a point in life where we become reflective and want to engage with more purposeful work. Today we face so many global challenges on planet earth, it feels irresponsible for any organisation not to sit back and at the very least look at its social and environmental impact. Basic sustainability is the basic bottom line; legal compliance, value chain and life cycle assessments to look for improvements. But is it enough?
I would say not. I think we are now talking about a moral responsibility to go further than having a sustainability strategy. We need planetary purpose. Organisations need to look for the synergies within their business model to see where it would be possible to join the dots between the ‘back’ end of the business and the ‘front’ end. Where the entire operating strategy for the company is aligned to a planetary purpose whilst still focused on profitability and sound business sense. It’s not a marketing purpose. It’s not about Apple being the home for creative misfits. It is about taking a long hard look and deciding what your primary social and environmental purpose could be; and ideally joining those dots together.
Interface does this very well with Net-Works. Product component (plastic) meets environmental care meets social community improvement. Sustain Natural does this brilliantly with environmentally designed condoms and tampons meets women’s empowerment meets health and social mobility improvements. New social enterprise models like Onchenda in the US will disrupt food services; local food production meets soil enhancement meets empowering small farmers meets reduction in agricultural impact on water use, soil degradation and pollution.
The SDGs are a brilliant template to use for a creative exploration of the art of the possible for your organisation. Check out our Activating the SDGs workshops.
Identifying future business opportunities
The old adage goes ‘where’s there’s muck, there’s brass’. Today that looks more like ‘the best business opportunities are in global challenges’. Innovative accelerators like Unreasonable know this. They’re working with startups that are focused on delivering against a global challenge. Universities like Singularity know this too. Peter Diamandis is world renowned for helping to build startups that will change the lives of 1 billion people.
The SDGs aim to redirect global public and private investment flows towards the challenges they represent. In doing so they define growing markets for companies that can deliver innovative solutions and transformative change.
What are the adjacencies in your current business that would allow for expansion that relate to the challenges in the Goals? Outdoor brand Patagonia has an established reputation as an environmentally focused business. They’re now turning their attention to the future of food. Tangental, but vitally important and a credible brand extension.
Communications & Collaborations
The SDGs define a common framework of action and language that will help companies communicate more consistently and effectively with stakeholders about their impact and performance. The Goals also help organisations bring together collaborative partners to address the world’s most urgent challenges that they might have little or no chance of addressing on their own.
What could a group of synergistic SMEs do if they were in food production? Run an accelerator looking for the brightest new brains on precision agriculture or water reduction together with the local University? What could a group of like-minded fashion brands do? Collaborate to organise better leverage and economies of scale on recycled and regenerative fabric sourcing?
Collaborative efforts also tell powerful stories which enhance reputation. Consider Forum for the Future‘s collaboration with Ecover on Glocal. Consider the collective behind The New Plastics Economy.
Strengthening stakeholder relations and reputation
Companies that align their priorities with the SDGs can strengthen engagement of customers, employees and other stakeholders, especially if they align everything behind a planetary purpose. We have also seen a marked increase in global brands preferring suppliers who have aligned with the Goals. The SDGs also offer an sense-check opportunity to reflect stakeholder expectations of your organisation as well as future policy direction at the international, national and regional levels. According to SDG Global Compass, companies that don’t will be exposed to growing legal and reputational risks.
If we can help you activate your creative and collaborative thinking around the SDGs, we would be happy to talk to you about the possibilities they could unlock for your business.
Images courtesy of Ecover, Patagonia, Interface Net-Works. Thank you.