Is business in tune with government and citizens on SDGs?

by Louise Scott

No-one can deny that the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), unanimously agreed by all 193 UN Member States are as ambitious as they are inspiring.

Two years since they came into force, our SDG Reporting Challenge looks at whether businesses fully understand the potential value of aligning their strategy and operations to the SDGs or if they are simply focusing on low hanging fruit.

And the results are thought-provoking. Four out of five (83%) UK businesses surveyed believe the SDGs are important enough to include in their reporting, compared to just 62% of global firms. However this isn’t necessarily translating into meaningful engagement, with only 39% of UK companies selecting priority SDGs.

Climate action (SDG13), for example, is a top priority for 71% of UK businesses who prioritised the SDGs – the highest among the goals. While it’s undoubtedly an important issue, this result is probably because many already have mechanisms in place to measure greenhouse gas emissions due to EU and other regulatory obligations. An easy goal to shoot for, perhaps.

The results also reveal that citizen and business priorities are misaligned, both in the UK and globally. While the top three goals for UK businesses were decent work and economic growth (SDG8), gender equality (SDG 5), an issue the business sector has been addressing in recent years, and climate action, this wasn’t reflected by the public. Issues of zero hunger (SDG 2), health and wellbeing (SDG3) and no poverty (SDG1) rated highest with UK citizens participating in our recent perception survey.

And according to our SDG Business Navigator, the worst performing goals for the UK - and arguably those that should be government priorities - are life below water (SDG14),  life on land (SDG15) and quality education (SDG4).

It’s all well and good for companies to prioritise those goals that are relevant to their business, but understanding and reflecting what’s most important to their stakeholders could be just as vital for any business aiming to build public trust. Companies must start addressing bigger questions such as: where does our organisation fit into the world?; what and how does our business contribute to society?; and what negative impacts are inherent in how we currently do business?

At the Building Public Trust Awards (held late last year), SDGs were also  put in the spotlight with PwC-run workshops and the award of the 2017 Corporate Reporting Award for Sustainability Reporting in the FTSE 350 and Public Interest Entities to Mondi, a global packaging and paper group. With strong ties to sustainability and explicit linkage to the SDGs, they demonstrated 10 action areas and 16 clearly-defined commitments by 2020 as well as external indicators and tools to assess impacts, adding to their credibility.  

As for PwC, we’re on our own journey to engage with and contribute to the SDGs. Using the same methods that we use with clients, we have already prioritised the goals that we feel we can have the greatest impact on through our operations and value chain, and have included them in our 2017 UK Annual Report1.  

Addressing the issues raised by the SDGs will help us to future proof our own business and build trust in our own brand. It’s great to see that others such as Mondi are doing the same.

Our hope is that through our new SDG Reporting Challenge and analysis, we can highlight the gap in current levels of engagement and encourage  other businesses think more deeply about how they can adapt their strategy and operations to help to achieve the SDGs.