News & Articles

A challenge to business: tackle the acute challenges for Australia through the Sustainable Development Goals

By Stephanie Sterck


Highlighted are the Sustainable Development Goals that most Australian and New Zealand organisations are planning to address (source: Pathways to Sustainable Development Goals, Annual Review of the State of CSR in Australia and New Zealand 2016)

Progressive, change making, essential, key to success. These are just some of the terms that have been used to describe the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs or Goals). And quite rightly.

Adopted 1 January 2016, these goals have set the global sustainability agenda for the next 15 years and are calling on all countries, all sectors and all industries to play their part. Music to my ears! The 17 SDGs are the next evolution of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were deemed by the United Nations as ultimately successful.

However, there are some fundamental improvements. The SDGs expand the MDGs tunnel vision focus on social issues and broaden their efforts to include environmental and economic aspects. They also address the developed, as well as the developing, world, and they call for action not just by governments but by business and civil society as well. Hallelujah – we are approaching sustainable development challenges holistically!

Given the Goals  recognised importance, my esteemed colleagues at ACCSR approached this year’s Annual Review of the State of CSR with an SDG lens. The final output, our 8th State of CSR report: Pathways to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Key to the report’s findings was the overwhelming amount of respondents, 85 percent, who were aware of the Goals. Expected today, nearly a year after their implementation, but an impressive result given their responses were collected in February 2016, four months after the Goals were announced. Of those who aware of the SDGs, the top five goals organisations planned to address included Goal 4, good health and wellbeing, Goal 5, gender equality, Goal 8, decent work and economic growth, Goal 9 industry, innovation and infrastructure and Gaol 13, climate action.

Given the rise of collective impact and multilateral partnerships in the last five years, when participants were asked about the actions they will take to address the Goals, it was not surprising that most identified engaging in strategic partnerships as their leading action. Reporting progress and measuring impact and performance were the second and third priority actions. Again, organisations plans to report and measure progress is not astonishing given most Australian organisations have begun taking action towards the SDGs by mapping the Goals back to their CSR strategies. The only action I would have thought necessary before the release of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and Bertelsmann Sifting’s SDG Index & Dashboards – Global report.

A truly interesting report, the SDG Index & Dashboard provides an individual report card for countries around the world and their progress towards achieving the Goals. And there are some fascinating results! Including Australia’s scorecard which identifies hunger, clean energy, climate change, oceans, biodiversity and partnerships as the most “acute challenges”. Health, water and sustainable cities were the only areas identified where Australia is doing a good job and is likely to meet the targets. The remaining eight goals have been flagged with caution.

Following the report’s release, Professor John Thwaites, Chair of the Monash Sustainability Institute and a member of the SDSN’s Leadership Council, made some interesting insights comparing the State of CSR and the SDG Index and Dashboard in his Guardian article, Australia can do much better than a rank of 20 on sustainable development goals.

As Thwaites highlights, an increasing number of companies have begun mapping the goals back to their business strategies and performance. This is coupled with a rise in the number of companies who have begun reporting against the goals by finding alignment through their sustainability reports.

This got me thinking, what else should businesses be doing?

A good place to start is to map the Goals against your company’s value chain.  Look beyond your supply chain to all the points at which value is created from source to consumer and the end of your product or service life cycle.

Don’t be afraid to advocate. Advocacy, particularly at a business level on social and environmental issues, is an underutilised but extremely effective action for change. Leverage your power and challenge yourselves to work with competitors in the fight for social and environmental justice.

Educate. For the last decade, businesses have become very good at educating their communities, particularly on issues relating to their CSR programs. Reimagine your efforts and begin to understand the individual contribution each of your employees can make to sustainable development. There are a number of areas that spring to mind where individuals can have a large contribution to the Goals’ without incurring costs. Take responsible consumption and production for example, and life below water.

Identify new opportunities. Identify new opportunities for collective partnerships, shared value initiatives or the development of new strategic CSR programs. Think big!

My challenge to businesses is this. Rather than stopping the mapping process with your CSR strategies, also look at the SDG Index & Dashboard. Start with those Goals’ listed as red – the most ‘acute challenges’ for Australia. Begin by understanding how and where your individual companies affect those Goals. Explore your CSR strategies through the lens of the dashboard and challenge yourselves to re-align efforts towards the most pressing Goals.

Take the SDSN’s Dashboard and Index as a call to action. Let’s refocus our efforts on those big, hairy, out of reach goals. Let’s set our goals high – let’s set them so high that deep down we know we need a miracle to reach them. Because it’s going to take a near miracle to get us out of this trouble we are currently in.

  • Share this post

About Stephanie Sterck

Stephanie Sterck is a Senior Consultant at the Australian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (ACCSR). ACCSR provides consulting services to businesses looking to improve their social and environmental impacts through strategy development, impact measurement and reporting, and improved stakeholder engagement.