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SDGs: getting beyond alignment

This article first appeared on the ProBono Australia Website

Recently, I attended a panel discussion on the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) where a range of industry figures from the CSR side and one of Australia’s key advocates for the goals, Monash University’s Professor John Thwaites, put forward ideas about why business should care about the global goals and what they might do about them. It was an interesting discussion, and one that highlighted how much the Australian Government has ceded leadership on aspects of sustainable development.

The event was hosted by the Banksia Foundation and Sustainable Business Australia and it aimed to highlight the challenges and opportunities of implementing the goals in an Australian context.

The panel included Prof John Thwaites, who as well as his Monash role is Co-Chair of the Leadership Council for the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), Susan Mizrahi, Head of Corporate Responsibility & Stakeholder Engagement at Australia Post, Andrew Petersen, CEO of Sustainable Business Australia, Ramana James, Head of Group Shared Value, IAG and ACCSR Senior Consultant, Rebecca Jinks.

What was clear from the discussion was that it’s early days yet in the lifespan of the goals. Business, NGOs and governments are still grappling with contextualizing them in their own organisations. As for finding opportunities related to achieving the goals, that’s still a long way off, even for the largest of businesses, it seems.

Bear in mind it was only last September that the 17 goals with their associated 169 targets were adopted globally and only January this year when they officially came into force.

What has happened since is that many organisations, particularly those that publish sustainability reports, have done some work to align their material sustainability issues and performance metrics with the goals.

But beyond that, it appears most businesses are a bit flummoxed about how to take the SDGs and their targets to the next level: how to integrate the goals and make them meaningful in their organisations.

This may be a symptom of a wider problem where businesses persist in seeing CSR as something they do separate to the running of their business, instead of being an integral part of it.

We know from ACCSR’s State of CSR Annual Review survey results that CSR professionals consistently cite ‘lack of buy-in from senior management’ as one of the key impediments to their ambitions for CSR in their organisations. This year’s survey focused on the SDGs and found, encouragingly, that Australian business was very aware of the goals and that ‘engaging in strategic partnerships’ to address the goals was the most common action related to addressing them, followed by assessing impact and performance, and reporting progress.

However, as Prof Thwaites noted, business needs to start moving towards introducing action plans and announcing policy commitments if solid progress on the goals is to be achieved.

The business case for acting on the SDGs is this: they will become globally significant, because they apply to both developed and developing nations; they have almost universal agreement; and they set out both high-level goals and more concrete targets against which both countries and businesses can be judged. This means that they will have an impact on reputation and will help identify and avoid risk, thereby driving value for shareholders and making organisations that address the goals a more attractive investment proposition. Additionally, they can help drive innovation, by spurring efforts to address deficiencies either as an individual business or in a collaborative partnership.

The panelists agreed that not much was going to happen unless organisations saw a particular goal or target as important to their business and strategy for the future. Making that link is the next step.

My ACCSR colleague, Stephanie Sterck, has proposed a range of approaches to help businesses move beyond alignment.

To which I would add some tactical suggestions.

To formulate a way forward ask yourself:

  • What is our business/organisation’s most important goals in the coming one, three and five years?
  • How do these accord with one or more of the SDGs and their associated targets? Would achieving our business goals help or hinder the achievement of the SDGs or their targets? Which SDGs? Which particular targets are impacted by our actions and activities?
  • How does our value chain impact on achievement of the SDGs?

For NGOs and civil society, the SDGs are likely to open opportunities to collaborate with both government and business to find ways to address the goals at scale. NGOs too need to understand how they fit into achievement of the goals. This will enable them to target other organisations where collaborative partnerships can be established or to develop opportunities to attract impact investment.

The UN acknowledges the important role that business will play if we are to achieve the goals and also the need for productive collaboration between business, NGOs and civil society and governments.

In July, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and Bertelsmann Sifting produced a global report which provided a “scorecard” as to where each country was positioned against achieving the goals.

Australia scored 20th on this SDG Index, just in front of New Zealand (22) and a little ahead of the United States (25), but behind the UK (10) and Canada (13), both countries with which we like to compare ourselves.

While we do well in some areas, we are let down by our lack of action on environmental goals including climate change mitigation. Goals flagged as ‘unlikely to achieve’ were: zero hunger, affordable and clean energy, climate action, life below water, life on land and partnerships for the goals, against just three (good health and wellbeing, clean water and sanitation and sustainable cities and communities) we are likely to achieve.

As the panelists agreed – we can do better!

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