In 2016 the UN launched 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which superseded the Millennium Development Goals that they had been working towards with national governments since 1992. They are described as ‘a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and planet, now and into the future’ – and collectively they outline the route towards eradicating the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems by 2030. However, there has always been a gap in the finance and necessary technical capacity to meet the challenge of achieving these ambitious Goals. So the UN used the launch to step up its bid for business and industry to throw its weight behind the SDGs to help close this gap.

Participation in the realisation of the SDGs offers tremendous opportunity for business.  It offers both the chance to demonstrate how it is delivering actively facilitating sustainable development, as well as significant potential economic value. [1] Many businesses have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, keen to demonstrate how they are contributing towards the sustainable development using the prism of the Goals. By April 2017 a UN Report showed that 82% of a sample 100 analysed blue chips had specifically disclosed their commitment to the SDGs in their annual reports.  Since then, myriad infographics have appeared on company websites, mapping corporate programmes, CSR initiatives and employee engagement programmes to the 17 colourful icons that represent the SDGs.

However, dig beneath the surface and it quickly becomes evident that the levels of tangible, measurable impact companies are having varies enormously. In the rush to show alignment with the Goals some companies have not given enough thought to the strategy behind their efforts. This leaves them open to accusations of SDG-washing, which undermines the whole collaborative effort.

So here are five tips on how you can avoid the appearance of SDG-washing in your strategy and communications around the Goals, whilst deriving the maximum impact for sustainable development as a result of your efforts.

  1. Focus on target-Level Goals

Beneath each of the 17 SDGs sits a series of detailed targets and indicators that tell a much more nuanced story about the level of progress required to meet the challenge.  There is growing acknowledgement amongst leaders in the sustainability business sector that in order to truly make progress, businesses must not only align their business strategy with the Goals, but also start setting and tracking their own metrics that map to the specific target-level SDGs.

One great example of a target-level SDG corporate effort is Citi Bank’s Citi for Cities, a programme that injects funding into cities around the world to help build the requisite infrastructure in response to the global trend towards urbanisation. In Panama City the company raised $862 million to help finance the Panama Metro. This initiative can be traced directly back to SDG 11.2 target – which is to provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport.

  1. Create something new

A good way to avoid the impression your business is only paying lip-service to the SDGs is to create a new programme, specially designed to deliver progress against one of the Goals, preferably something that would not otherwise happen without your key involvement.  One such initiative is Mastercard’s work on SDG 7 which addresses reducing economic inequality by tackling identity proof. This is an issue that affects 2.4 billion people who live without any form of official personal identification, the majority of whom are women.  Mastercard works with governments and NGOs around the world to introduce electronic ID cards and has partnered with UN Women in Nigeria to introduce over 100 million national ID cards that allow women to pay electronically thus facilitating a transference of independence.

  1. Measure and report on actual impacts not just activities

One of the biggest challenges companies face when they describe their CSR efforts is a lack of rigour in how they measure and report to show how real-world impacts have taken place as a result. It is much easier to talk about money spent, or how many people have been ‘touched’ by a particular initiative. However, outcome-led measurement instead focuses on establishing a benchmark from before a programme begins, and then measuring the lasting impact that would otherwise not have taken place in its absence. Unilever for example takes 8 SDGs and cross references each one against a series of quantifiable long term annually reviewed ‘big targets’ it has set for itself in areas of sustainability.

For a best practice approach to social impact measurement, take a look at the LBG Framework  which has pioneered a rigorous system.

  1. Don’t just retrofit

Much corporate rhetoric focuses on retrofitting existing programmes to the SDG matrix rather using the opportunity to create real and lasting change inside the business.  Again, it is easy to draw some links between the activities you have already undertaken and themes highlighted by the SDGs. This is particularly easy with areas such as Gender Equality or Decent Work and Economic Growth as they tend to align easily with areas of corporate governance. But as David Croft, Global Director of Sustainability at RB (formerly at Diageo) put it in a recent blog “It’s no longer about CSR or charitable projects…we are trying to leverage our whole business to create sustainable growth”.[2] It is important that companies evolve their strategies and operations to really drive change in these areas of social, economic and environmental impact and don’t just focus on a mapping exercise.

  1. Collaborate in multi-stakeholder partnerships

Lastly your SDG efforts will be strengthened not only in terms of credibility but also in reach and impact if you partner with knowledgeable independent experts to deliver programmes of change.  As well as the UN-based subgroups such as the WBCSD and Business for 2030, there are a plethora of NGOs, cause-related organisations and think tanks already working in this space who have talent and programmes you can connect with to amplify your own. One centre which runs a number of different initiatives that  businesses designed to accelerate the rate of change through corporate action on climate change for example is We Mean Business.  In addition to gaining the benefit of the expertise of these organisations, through collaboration you will also be simultaneously be able to point to progress against Goal 17, which is Partnership for the Goals.

Follow these simple rules for effective SDG action in 2019 and beyond!

[1] A recent report by The Business Commission found that achieving the SDGs could help release $12 trillion in business opportunities and create 380 million new jobs.


This blog was first published on The Responsible Business Blog and you can see it here: