Entering a Decade of Action: Making the SDGs a Matter of Priority

By James Gomme, Director, World Business Council for Sustainable Development

To mark the beginning of the “Decade of Delivery and Action”, James Gomme focuses on a list of “Top 10” tips that business can apply toward more robust action and substantial long-term progress.

As we enter 2020 the clock is ticking louder than ever before when it comes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While progress has been made since the SDGs were launched in 2015, we are not advancing at the speed or scale required. In recognition of this, the United Nations has called for 2020 to usher in a “Decade of Action” to deliver the Goals by 2030, and the UN Secretary-General António Guterres has now outlined what he sees as being his priorities for the make-or-break decade that lies ahead of us.

The private sector will have a critical role to play in determining whether or not the SDGs are realized over the course of the next decade, and similarly needs to take stock of its efforts and identify its own priority SDG engagement areas; the areas where it is best equipped to drive real action and impact.

Many companies have already embarked upon efforts to pinpoint their “priority” SDGs. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s (WBCSD) 2019 Reporting matters analysis, revealed that 84% of WBCSD’s members are currently identifying specific sub-sets of the 17 SDGs that they feel are most relevant for their organization and to which they feel most equipped to contribute.

This is an encouraging trend. Establishing a clear picture of the most significant opportunities that a business has to contribute towards the realization of the SDGs helps to focus efforts and drive meaningful engagement. The reality is that very few companies have the potential, or indeed the capacity, to move the needle on all 17 SDGs and the 169 targets that sit beneath them. Although it is, of course, important to consider the SDGs holistically, in the vast majority of cases targeted and concentrated interaction across a smaller cross-section of priority Goals is likely to drive more robust action and result in more substantial long-term progress.

It is however critically important that, when deciding to identify the SDGs that are most relevant to its operations, the company in question embarks upon a prioritization process which is both robust and transparent. While best practice in this field is still emerging, we at WBCSD have identified our top ten tips on SDG prioritization to support companies engaging in this process as we enter the Decade of Action.

1) Make sure your prioritization is “principled”

One of the key ingredients for a robust prioritization process is ensuring that you are considering the opportunities that your organization has to contribute towards the SDGs through the lens of mitigating negative impacts as well as generating positive ones. The UN Global Compact and GRI’s guidance on Integrating the SDGs into Corporate Reporting refers to this as “principled prioritization”. It calls on companies to simultaneously map their most salient negative impacts on people and planet and link these to the SDGs, while also exploring their potential to develop new products and services to drive SDG progress. By tackling negative impacts, particularly in the sphere of human rights, companies have the potential to break down some of the most significant barriers to development and positively impact the lives of millions of the most vulnerable individuals in society.

2) Target the targets

The true power of the SDGs resides in the detail of the 169 targets that sit beneath the 17 headline Goals. Without understanding the targets it’s impossible to understand the goals themselves. Therefore, in order to fully understand which of the SDGs are most relevant to your business, it is crucial to dive into the SDGs at target level and identify the specific targets around which your organization is best placed to make a difference.

3) Embracing categorization

An interesting approach that many companies are starting to take involves dividing the SDGs up into a series of different categories of relevance. This more nuanced approach to prioritization (rather than the more binary method of labeling each of the goals as either relevant of irrelevant) is more in keeping with the holistic nature of the SDG agenda and helps to defend against allegations of SDG cherry-picking. For example, Danish logistics company Maersk, categorizes each of the 17 SDGs as either being a) goals on which the company has strong potential for positive impact at scale; b) goals on which the company still has potential for direct or indirect impact; or c) goals around which the company has a responsibility to mitigate potential negative impacts.

4) Be global but think local

Although one of the key features of the SDGs is their universality and relevance to all countries around the world, it is important to remember that this global agenda has extremely local implications. As evidenced by the annual findings of the SDG Index, every country faces its own unique set of SDG challenges and therefore needs a bespoke set of solutions. Companies that are able to identify the SDGs which are most relevant to the different regions in which they operate, and to factor this into their strategic engagement with the goals, will ultimately be better placed to provide the solutions and innovations that are most needed. The GMSA’s annual Mobile Industry Impact Report is a good example of this sort of analysis in action.

5) Use the tools

The process of analyzing the SDGs targets and determining how they relate to your industry can be a complex one. The good news is that, in the five years since the SDGs were launched, we have seen a plethora of tools and resources emerge to support business in conducting this analysis. The UN Global Compact and GRI’s Analysis of Goals and Targets provides particularly comprehensive insight into how business has the potential to contribute to each of the SDG targets, while the SDG Industry Matrix provides a more industry-focused breakdown. You can explore these and many other resources that WBCSD has collected on our SDG Business Hub.

6) Connect with industry peers

Another way to try and cut through this complexity of SDG prioritization is to come together with peers and try and form a collective view on what should be the focus areas for your industry as a whole. This is something that a number of sectors have started to do through WBCSD’s SDG Sector Roadmap work. A collective analysis allows companies to share insights into SDG impact opportunities and to challenge each other on where their sector should be focusing its efforts.

7) Engage with stakeholders

As with any materiality process, SDG prioritization is not something that should be conducted in an echo chamber. Speak to your different groups of stakeholders to leverage their thinking on the SDGs and test your prioritization with them before locking it down.

8) Show your working

Whatever approach your organization takes to selecting its priority SDGs, it is important to communicate the process that sits behind this selection. Explain why you have selected the goals that you have (and why you have passed over others). With criticisms of SDG washing and cherry-picking by business increasingly coming to the fore, transparency around the prioritization process has an important role to play in terms of reassuring your stakeholders that you are taking this agenda seriously.

9) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

As tempting as it may be to put the SDG prioritization process to bed until 2030 having identified your key goals, ideally this process should be revisited at regular intervals. Neither the SDGs nor your business are static entities and, as both advance, your priorities are also likely to shift. By keeping abreast of global progress being made on the SDG agenda, and periodically exploring how your company’s evolving portfolio interacts with the goals, you will be better placed to identify opportunities for impact as they continue to emerge on the road to 2030. 

10) Don’t stop there!

Although prioritization is a critical first step, it is just a first step. Having identified the SDG goals and targets around which your business has the most potential to drive impact, it is important to build on this and move on to consider: what are your company’s SDG ambitions; what qualitative and quantitative targets can you set; which KPIs will enable you to track and communicate your progress most effectively; and how will you embed an understanding of the SDGs throughout your organization? Prioritization is only the beginning.

This article was previously published on WBCSD website and is reproduced with permission.

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