Remember the Sustainable Development Goals? It’s not a facetious question. Amid all the other corporate sustainability priorities of the past few years — net zero, ESG, the circular economy, social justice, resource constraints and all the rest — not to mention a seemingly never-ending drumbeat of political upheaval, economic uncertainty and a pandemic, the SDGs seem to have fallen off the business agenda
The sobering reality of the UN’s Global Goals
Remember the Sustainable Development Goals?
It’s not a facetious question. Amid all the other corporate sustainability priorities of the past few years — net zero, ESG, the circular economy, social justice, resource constraints and all the rest — not to mention a seemingly never-ending drumbeat of political upheaval, economic uncertainty and a pandemic, the SDGs seem to have fallen off the business agenda. Now, as we near the halfway point of the SDGs’ ambitious 15-year framework to tackle the world’s thorniest social, environmental and economic challenges, progress is dismal at best.
That’s the conclusion of a new United Nations report that assesses the progress being made against the 17 SDGs. It’s not at all encouraging.
Stop reading here if you want to remain blissfully ignorant, or don’t want to harsh your summer mellow with an ice-bucket reality check, or if you’d prefer to celebrate your company’s hard-earned sustainability successes without having to ask the bigger question: Are all those initiatives and achievements making a tangible difference on the global issues that matter?
You already know the answer: Not so much.
There’s simply no way to sugarcoat it: We are failing as a species.
For those who need a refresher, the SDGs — the Global Goals, as they’re also called — were promulgated in 2015 by the U.N. General Assembly and adopted by all 193 member states. They succeeded the Millennium Development Goals, another 15-year initiative, adopted in 2000. The 17 goals cover a multitude of complex issues, including eliminating poverty and hunger and ensuring good health, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work, responsible consumption, healthy oceans and several other outcomes.
The goals were designed to be broad. In 2017, the U.N. fleshed them out a bit, listing eight to 12 targets for each goal — 169 targets across the 17 goals — as well as 231 "indicators" that can gauge progress.
For example, under Goal No. 13 — "Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts" — one target aims to "strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries." Among that target’s three indicators is "the number of deaths, missing persons and directly affected persons attributed to disasters per 100,000 population." The other 16 goals are similarly mapped out.
So, how are we doing? As I said, not very well, according to the 2022 Sustainable Development Goals Report, published last week by the U.N. The status report’s conclusion is telegraphed on the very first page in a foreword penned by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres: "We need an urgent rescue effort for the SDGs."
"Rescue effort" pretty much sums it up. We’re losing ground faster than we’re making progress — one step forward, two steps back.
The pandemic is partly to blame. Aside from the horrendous toll it’s taken on human lives, it’s had a deleterious effect on most of the 17 goals.
For example, the pandemic "put steady progress in poverty reduction over the past 25 years into reverse," said the report, "with the number of people in extreme poverty increasing for the first time in a generation." It exacerbated already deteriorating food security, with about 150 million more people facing hunger in 2021 than in 2019. Pandemic disruptions caused millions of children to miss out on essential vaccines such as for measles and diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis. COVID-related school closures threaten to reverse years of progress aimed at keeping children in school, in particular girls and young women. The pandemic has caused the first rise in between-country income inequality in a generation.
The list goes on. And on.
It’s not just the pandemic. The teetering global economy, climate-exacerbated resource shortages, the Russia-Ukraine war and political upheaval around the world all have taken a toll on progress toward the SDGs. For example, according to the report, electrification of poorer countries has slowed due to the difficulty of reaching the most remote villages. Global manufacturing is rebounding, but poorer countries are being left behind. At the current pace of change, it will take 40 more years for women and men to be equally represented in national political leadership, the U.N. said.
The report isn’t pleasant reading and I derive no joy in sharing it with you. But it’s a vital, sobering reality check. There’s simply no way to sugarcoat it: We are failing as a species.
Where does business fit in? In the ways it always does: as an economic engine creating jobs and wealth, as an extractor and consumer of natural resources, as a manufacturer and distributor of goods and services, as an influential member of local communities, as a voice to policy makers, as an educator to customers and employees. Each of these affords an opportunity for companies to reach beyond mere philanthropy or eco-efficiency improvements to play a larger, more impactful role in society.
So, how, and how much, are the SDGs showing up inside companies these days? And to the extent that they are, is it making a measurable difference? Are companies doing anything new to support the SDGs, or simply aligning their already-existing commitments and initiatives with the 17 goals? How, if at all, are they measuring progress?
A few years ago, we saw a number of companies aligning their corporate sustainability initiatives with the SDGs, but that seems to have tapered off, no doubt giving way to other front-burner issues. Besides, the linkages between companies and the Global Goals were always tenuous: How much credit can a company actually claim for, say, helping end poverty? Protecting oceans? Promoting social justice? Can a company establish its "fair share" of these problems, as the Science-Based Targets initiative attempts to do for carbon pollution, then aim to remedy it?
Until it can, many corporate commitments to the SDGs may be chalked up as PR. (Have you heard about "SDG washing"? It’s a thing.)
What are you seeing? How is your company, or companies in general, engaging with the SDGs? Who seems to be doing it well? Are any sectors leading the way? I welcome your comments.
I’ll end with a poignant quote in the report from Liu Zhenmin, the U.N.’s under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs, who bluntly articulated not just the severity, but also the opportunity, of this moment:
The world is facing a confluence of crises that threaten the very survival of humanity. All of these crises — and ways to prevent and navigate them — are addressed holistically in the SDGs. We ignore them at our own peril.
Indeed, we do.
This article was previously published on GreenBiz