A Brief Introduction to the 17 SDGs

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The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, otherwise known as the SDGs, The Global Goals or the 2030 Agenda, were adopted by all the United Nation’s Members States in 2015. In the words of the UN, the Sustainable Development Goals “are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.” 1

For our company, working in and around the SDGs – and helping and supporting other businesses to do that too – is a vitally important part of our vision. It should be a vitally important part of your business’s strategic objectives, and not just because the SDGs are crucial to our planet’s future. It’s also because, where business is concerned, the SDGs represent the very best way to become profitable, sustainable and longer-lasting. Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman said the SDGs “represent the biggest business opportunity of our lifetime” and “sustainability isn’t just the right thing to do; it is essential to drive business growth.” 2

To make the SDGs work, we have to reframe our mindset. We have to stop thinking of building a business as a ‘boom or bust’ enterprise that we can sell in 3-5 years and then move on. We’ve got to build our businesses on solid founding principles, with the view that they’ll still be here in twenty, fifty and a hundred years. That way, we won’t only have created a business that’s successful and has a legacy, we will also have contributed to building a better planet.

But here’s the issue many business owners face when they’re considering the SDGs – with goals that cover everything from ‘No Poverty’ and ‘Zero Hunger’ to ‘Gender Equality’, ‘Climate Action’, ‘Life Below Water’ and ‘Life on Land’, the 17 SDGs are so incredibly broad that attempting to implement them can seem overwhelming. More than that, when you delve beneath the surface of each of the individual SDGs you’ll come up against a whole list of targets (Indicators) you’re expected to meet and the precise ways of measuring the impact you’re having against them.

That’s a lot to take in, and it leaves many businesses tempted to ignore the SDGs completely. Except that isn’t an option, because the SDGs are the future and you can’t afford to let your business (or the planet) be left behind. Besides, aligning your business with the SDGs will enhance your reputation and increase your value.

As the UN website says, for the global Sustainable Development Goals to be reached “everyone needs to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society and people like you.”

How to make the Sustainable Development Goals work for you

Remember that famous Chinese proverb, ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’? That’s how you should approach the Sustainable Development Goals. Don’t try to tackle all 17 SDGs at the same time. Focus on just one of them, or two or three if you’re feeling ambitious. Moreover, do it in a structured, mindful way.

Beginning the SDG Journey

Start by looking at the 17 SDGs more closely. When we work with businesses on their SDGs we often find there’s at least one SDG they’re already contributing to and don’t even realise it. If that’s the case with your business, it’s time to identify that SDG and find out if you could be doing even more with it. It’s also time to let your clients, competitors and the outside world know you’ve got an SDG your business is actively aligned to. It shows how seriously you’re taking your business, and it demonstrates the responsibility you’re feeling towards everything from the future of your local community to the future of our planet.

Don’t forget, it doesn’t matter if it’s just one SDG and you’re falling short on all the others. With the support of a company like ours you’ll be able to focus on your current SDG more strategically, derive more benefits from it, and then the next SDGs you adopt will naturally start falling into place.

What if your business doesn’t currently follow an SDG?

Not a problem. Just go back to those 17 SDGs and concentrate on one or two which really strike a chord with you. That’s all you need to get going.

What are your company’s values?

These days, most companies have some form of environmental policy in place. It might not be a particularly good one, and you might not be especially proactive in following it, but if your company does have an environmental policy then what you’re already inadvertently doing is aligning yourself with SDG 13 - Climate Action. On the one hand, congratulations – you’ve already got an SDG you can work with. On the other hand, if you and your employees aren’t committed to that SDG – i.e. if you’re not genuinely invested in turning off the lights, using the recycling bins, or reducing office waste – it’s not going to work. You can’t merely pay lip-service to the SDGs; you’ve got to make them actively happen.

That means engaging hearts and minds.

The top-down versus bottom-up argument

A lot of companies pick and choose the SDGs that feel appropriate to how they work. For example, an energy company might adopt Climate Action, or a food company might go straight into Good Health and Well-Being (SDG 3), Zero Hunger (SDG 2) and No Poverty (SDG 1). In many ways that makes a lot of practical sense because those are the SDGs which have a direct relationship to the industry or process the company is involved in. However, what if the food company’s employees were more interested in SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation? Or the energy company’s workers were more fired up by SDG 4 – Quality Education?

Remember, the SDGs aren’t just about the way we do business, they’re about the way we live our lives. They each have specific tactile points that connect to the passions we have outside of work and carry with us as part of our structured belief. Each one of us can look at the 17 SDGs and understand and appreciate them for what they stand for, but some of those SDGs will resonate stronger with us than others because they relate to how we value ourselves and our connection to other people.

As a business, if you can find out which SDGs your employees connect to (instead of imposing your business’s SDGs upon them) you’ll engage your workers more powerfully. As a result, you’ll eventually be able to orientate your business around the SDGs that will allow it to become more deep-rooted and sustainable in its own right.

That’s essentially the top-down versus bottom-up argument – do you accomplish your goals by delivering authority and power from the top-down, or do you tap into the beliefs and passions of your employees and use your influence to accomplish your goals from the bottom-up?

We believe that influence is the new currency of leadership. When people know that the organisation they work for is aligned with the goals they’re personally passionate about, they’ll be naturally more motivated to help it reach its objectives. Their productivity, commitment and sense of job satisfaction will all be enhanced because their organisation cares about the sustainable goals they believe in.

But what if some people still can’t agree on the SDGs you choose?

In that case, it’s time to displace and reframe the argument. If your employees believe you sincerely care about the SDGs you’re aiming to achieve, if they understand why you care, why they should care, and see the measurable targets you’ve got to meet to show the impact you’re having on those goals day-in and day-out, they’ll be motivated to take action for themselves.

Once they’re taking action through their own natural instinct (because you’ve connected with their hearts and minds so aligning with the goals becomes an almost unconscious way of thinking and acting) accomplishing your SDGs will quickly become ingrained in your business’s culture.

It’s all about ownership and leadership and demonstrating a genuine connection and commitment to the SDGs you’ve chosen to work on. And it starts with identifying that very first SDG and building the strategy that engages hearts and minds and makes it happen.

That’s not as hard as it sounds once you’ve followed that Chinese philosopher’s advice and taken the single step. The important thing is to be mindful of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and be sincere in your objectives. When you don’t do any of those things, it can go horribly wrong. We’ll be talking about that in our next blog.

Until then – which of the 17 SDGs is your business going to follow?

PS. A lot of people think Confucius said ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’ but it was actually Lao-Tzu, in the 4th – 6th Century Chinese text Tao Te Ching. How’s that for a last quick bit of unexpected trivia?

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