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Tackling the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Working towards a better future

5 minute read
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Whether it is taking steps towards gender equality, affordable and clean energy or quality education, businesses are becoming increasingly aware of their corporate social responsibility.

The drive for positive change has only improved, thanks to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a set of objectives that replaced its Millennium Development Goals back in 2015, with a focus on tackling social and environmental challenges.

According to KPMG’s Big Shifts, Small Steps Survey of Sustainable Reporting 2022, which gathered data from two research samples – G250 (the world’s 250 largest companies by revenue based on the 2021 Fortune 500 ranking) and N100 (a worldwide sample of the top 100 companies by revenue in 58 countries, territories and jurisdictions) – SDGs have resonated strongly with business, with large leaps in reporting against them between 2017 and 2020.

The survey shows that only 39 per cent of N100 companies and 43 per cent of G250 companies reported on SDGs in 2017, with these figures rising to 71 per cent and 74 per cent in 2022 respectively.

However, with 17 SDGs that are aimed to be met by 2030, Macquarie Business School Department of Management Professor Debbie Haski-Leventhal said the goals were becoming more crucial in business conversation and discourse than ever, and companies would be wise to apply the SDGs to their everyday business models.

Corporate involvement from the beginning

Professor Haski-Leventhal said businesses, both big and small, had a vital role to play in achieving each of the SDGs.

“The SDGs have provided the first real opportunity for businesses to have a collective conversation about what we want to achieve,” she said.

“In developing the SDGs, businesses came together with heads of state, not-for-profit organisations and the community, holding numerous discussions to define and agree upon the 17 goals.”

How can businesses do their part?

Going hand in hand with corporate social responsibility, Professor Haski-Leventhal said being part of the movement towards achieving the SDGs should begin with the question: what is sustainable development?

“When you look at the definitions from 1987, it’s about assuring the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future generations,” she said.

“When people think about sustainability, they often think about the second part of this definition.

“However, addressing the needs of the present is another important part of sustainable development – and that’s about businesses, what they can do and how they can use the power of business to achieve the needs of the present and future.”

The next step is to understand the company’s ethos – what does the brand stand for?

“Businesses should look at which of the 17 SDGs are most aligned with who they are and what the business does,” Professor Haski-Leventhal said.

“This not only makes it strategic and holistic, but also makes it more effective.

“If you work on something you know, then you will be able to more effectively help achieve the SDGs.

Pointing to some examples, Professor Haski-Leventhal said businesses could align with Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, which could resonate if production patterns had room for improvement, while Goal 13: Climate Action might appeal if office greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced or better recycling practices could be implemented.

Putting SDGs into action

Supporting the SDGs is Take 3 for the Sea, a non-profit organisation leading the way with programs and campaigns to a future free from plastic pollution.

“Take 3 for the Sea is a not-for-profit that started on the Central Coast region of New South Wales in 2009, with the simple message of picking up three pieces of rubbish every time you leave the beach or a waterway,” Take 3 for the Sea Head of Education Annie Woollard said.

“As time has progressed, we have educated about 750,000 students through our Take 3 for the Sea education programs and we aim to increase that to one million by 2025.

“Our education programs not only teach students about the issue of plastic pollution but, more importantly, what we can all do to create solutions.

“We’ve been connected to the SDGs, and we are now moving towards embedding them in everything we do.”

Currently, Take 3 for the Sea has aligned with nine of the SDGs, with the main focus on Goal 14: Life Below Water, as well as Goal 4: Quality Education and Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production.

Ms Woollard said it was important for companies to embed the chosen SDGs into their organisation in order for the goals to be reached in time for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“It’s important to not have the goals as tokenistic elements of the business,” she said. “You can choose simple actions – even if it’s as small as banning single-use plastics in the office.”

Achieving the SDGs

According to Professor Haski-Leventhal, there are several SDGs that still need attention, including Goal 1: No Poverty, Goal 2: Zero Hunger and Goal 3: Good Health and Wellbeing.

“These require a lot of action,” she said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in poverty, hunger, health, and troubles with physical and mental wellbeing, so companies can do a lot more to turn this around."

“We only have seven years left to achieve the SDGs. If I could call out to businesses, I would say we urgently need to look at the first, second and third goals, as well as Goal 4: Quality Education and Goal 5: Gender Equality, respectively.”

Net-zero emissions

For businesses looking to align with SDGs, including Goal 13: Climate Action, AIM WA’s Net Zero Emissions – Getting Started course helps businesses and individuals understand their emissions, so they can set realistic, sustainable targets and plans to contribute to the worldwide movement towards net-zero emissions.

ToBe Advisory Founder and Managing Director Michael Watts FAIM said the course was about determining where emissions were being made within a company and moving to a long-term net-zero plan.

“We look at what a company is emitting – how much they are using in company-owned vehicles and their electricity consumption, for example,” he said.

“We also investigate how much carbon is being emitted from their employees who are working from home or commuting to and from work, as well as how much their suppliers are using.

“It’s about observing the supply chain, where the emissions are in the organisation and measuring those.

“Then, we look into how we are going to do something about it.”

Among all the 17 SDGs, Mr Watts said there was a goal that could be applied to every company.

“It’s important for business owners to consider their business purpose, and what they’re trying to achieve and understand,” he said.

“Where are they able to embed making a positive impact with the SDGs into business, and how can they operate to achieve those outcomes?

“It’s not about separating the goal from the business, rather, it’s about integrating it into the business so it happens by default – that is something I really encourage businesses leaders to look at.”