Ambitious goals set the development agenda for the next 15 years – what does it all mean for UK business?

As global leaders return home after a momentous weekend in New York, in which the gavel came down to signal the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is time to reflect on what this means closer to home for UK business.

The ambitious set of 17 goals (underpinned by 169 targets) will be used as the blueprint for national policy for all UN member states for the next 15 years – with an agenda focused on shared responsibility and the concept that no one should be left behind.  Their achievement will see the eradication of poverty, the sharing of economic prosperity and the protection of our environment. 



Learning from the experience of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), whose 15 year remit expires at the end of 2015, the SDGs will take a more holistic approach towards global development, with the aim of addressing the universal economic, environmental and social issues that the world faces. Another key difference will be the existence of an underlying framework to effectively measure progress through a set of some 120 indicators – the detailed finalisation of which will follow next March.


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The goals have been set in collaboration with business, and there is universal recognition that business will play a crucial role in their successful achievement.  Leaders of many of the world’s largest companies came forward in support of the SDGs  - with public commitments to action being made at Saturday’s Private Sector Forum by the CEOs from Pearson plc, ANZ Bank, Anglo American, EDP, Novozymes, Aviva, Facebook, Unilever, Mara to name but a few. And our own Chairman signed an open letter to the NY Times and the Financial Times alongside the CEOs of Virgin, Alibaba, MHFI, Embarer, Vestas, GITI, Novozymes and Dow. But how this translates into concrete action over the coming months and years will be key.

Awareness of the global goals amongst UK business leaders was found to be very high (93%) in our recent SDG Engagement Survey of business and citizens. And although many are looking to governments to be the primary driver for implementation, UK business leaders are already more engaged than their global peers, with 36% being not only aware of the SDGs but also implementing plans to act on them compared with only 23% of business leaders globally.

Citizens across the board believe that it is very important for business to sign up to the goals, with a conclusive 76% of UK citizens being more likely to use a company’s goods or services if they knew they are signed up to the SDGs.  

In terms of where business is likely to focus its attention, Decent work and economic growth (SDG 8) and Good health and well-being (SDG 3) were seen as the top priority areas in terms of both potential for business to have an impact and there being greatest business opportunity.  There was an interesting difference in emphasis on the climate action goal (SDG 13), which was seen as the goal of most importance to citizens but was not viewed by UK business as a key area of opportunity for them.  Perhaps this might be something for leaders to reflect upon.

In thinking about how business leaders can embrace the agenda set out in the SDGs, the first key step will be to understand which SDGs are more relevant to their existing operations, which can then help them to make more informed decisions on where they might focus their efforts and resources.  It seems that UK business is again ahead of global businesses on this front, with a high proportion (46%) already considering how they can embed the SDGs into the way they do business this, compared with only 31% of businesses globally.  

In order to help businesses take that first step, we are in the process of developing a quick diagnostic tool that will show which SDGs are of more relevance given the countries and sectors in which a business operates, and the policies, practices and initiatives that they currently employ.  We are about to start pilot testing of the tool and aim to launch it formally in the run up to COP21 in Paris at the end of November.

If you would like to be the first to try out our tool then please get in touch!

Louise Scott | Director, Global Sustainability
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