Which goals are key for businesses? What sectors do they address? Will they make any difference? Here are some insights on many of the 169 SDG targets which can come handy when building a SDG compatible organization. Where the millennium development goals were seen as applying principally to developing countries, the sustainable development goals will apply globally. What do businesses need to know about them? Ahead of the formal adoption of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) at the UN’s Sustainable Development Summit in New York, we wonder what are the SDGs, what do they mean for business and what impact will they have?
What are they?
The SDGs effectively replace the millennium development goals (MDGs), which were in place from 2000 to 2015. Whether you believe the MDGs were a success or not, they certainly became a fulcrum for global development. In 2012, at Rio+20, it was agreed that a new set of goals would be drawn up, based on widespread stakeholder engagement. The final 17 goals as agreed by all 193 member states of the UN cover a 15-year timeframe to 2030 and include 169 targets. “Unlike the MDGs, the private sector has been very involved in their creation,” says Simon Kingston, global development practice lead at Russell Reynolds Associates.
Which goals are most business-specific?
MDG sceptics long argued that the only reason people were lifted out of poverty from 2000-2015 was the economic growth of developing and middle-income markets, most notably China and India. In a sense, the SDGs build on that argument and embrace private sector growth as a means for development and poverty reduction. Goal 8 includes targets to achieve full employment for all, protect labour rights and tackle the Neet (people not in education, employment or training) crisis, the last of these by 2020. It also includes the memorable phrase “decouple economic growth from environmental degradation”, which could become the slogan for sustainable business.Goal 9’s “sustainable industrialisation” talks of a need to significantly raise “industry’s share of employment and gross domestic product, and double its share in least developed countries” – a pro private sector stance (and arguably anti public ownership). “The important elements for business is that their role has been recognised,” says San Bilal, head of the economic transformation and trade programme at the European Centre for Development Policy Management. “They are not considered the bad guys any more. The discourse has changed – seeking to make profit is not seen as [incompatible] with development.”However, Rob Cameron, executive director of SustainAbility and former CEO of Fairtrade International, says: “Don’t overlook Goal 1, end poverty in all its forms, everywhere … the question becomes one of equity, and business will need to address that.”
Which sectors are addressed?
There’s a fair bit in the goals for the food and drink industry. Goal 12 includes halving per capita global food waste at the retail level and reducing food losses along production and supply chains. Goal 2 also seems to favour smallholder farmers over large-scale agri-business – “double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers … including through secure and equal access to land”. For the energy industry, fossil-fuel subsidies are to be phased out “where they exist, to reflect their environmental impacts”, while increasing “substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix”. Water and utilities obviously have a direct interest in Goal 6 (ensure access to water and sanitation for all), while the fishing industry is targeted by Goal 14(conserve oceans, seas and marine resources).
Recurring theme of trade liberalisation
The removal of subsidies and trade barriers recurs throughout. As well as fossil-fuel subsidises, the prohibition of fisheries subsidies is called for in Goal 14. Goal 17 gives robust support to global business and free trade, and calls for meaningful trade liberalisation under the World Trade Organisation (WTO), while the “means of implementation” section of the SDGs twice describes international trade as an “engine for inclusive economic growth”. We can expect to see the Doha Development Agenda come back to the fore.“Governments cannot ignore their responsibilities,” says Cameron. “There is no such thing as a free market, there never has been – government sets the rules by which commerce is done … that regulation has to shift.”
Sustainable business becomes mainstream
The circular economy, supply chain auditing and sustainability reporting – all come out of the shadows and into the limelight.Goal 12 calls for the 10-year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production to be implemented, which promotes whole life cycle, cradle-to-cradle approaches among other things. Target 12.6 calls on member states to encourage companies to “integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle”. Expect to see a lot of activity around reporting standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative.
Will the SDGs make any difference?
Not everyone thinks so. These are aspirations, not legally binding commitments. Bill Easterly, co-director of New York University’s Development Research Institute, has called the SDGs “a very big container of verbal fudge”. Many,including David Cameron, have decried the sheer number of goals and targets. “Let’s not be naïve,” says Bilal. “The SDGs provide a nice framework but in themselves are not sufficient to change approaches and attitudes … with 169 targets, the full implementation of the SDGs will not be possible.”However, even if they do preach to the converted, Kingston believes converts can now increasingly “influence their supply chain, through contractual arrangements, expectations and scrutiny. That’s the next generation of this agenda … What we’ve learned from the MDGs is having a shared framework and shared language is something one shouldn’t be too cynical about … and it is a revelation to see people like Paul Polman now in the middle of this, rather than the outside looking in.”
What happens next?
Following the UN summit, multi-sector working groups will form for each of the 17 goals. A UN business advisory council will also launch their website that will offer businesses a step-by-step guide to how they can address the post-2015 agenda and the International Chamber of Commerce has launched a guide to help companies contribute to the SDGs for a much promising future.
By Naved Jafry & Garson Silvers