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Leveraging the UN SDGs for Business Growth & Global Impact

Sat, 02/27/2016

By Nigel Salter , CEO, Salterbaxter MSLGROUP and Kristina Joss , Senior Sustainability Consultant, Salterbaxter MSLGROUP

A more diverse set of goals: A larger role for business

Starting January 2016, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in dictating the global development agenda through 2030. The 17 SDGs reach across six broad categories of cooperation, dignity, justice, people, planet and prosperity, and include targets and indicators that are global, inclusive and scientifically grounded.

While not legally binding or mandatory, the SDGs will undoubtedly inform investment plans and international jurisdictions, set national development budgets and drive sustainability activity. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is the role of the private sector.

While the MDGs were largely directed at governments, and thus often brushed off by the business community, the SDGs are deliberately designed for business and civil society to bear responsibility for together.

It’s important to acknowledge that not everyone thinks the SDGs are a great new step forward. There remains a substantial body of opinion suggesting the goals are unlikely to deliver. Politicians and CEOs alike have criticized the SDGs for being too lengthy, too complex and downright unrealistic. With 17 goals, 169 targets and more than 300 provisional indicators it’s an understandable criticism to make.

Yet despite the opposition, the SDGs are intended to provide the widest range of opportunities for governments, businesses, NGOs and institutions to focus on areas where they can collaboratively make a positive difference.

For businesses specifically, it is not only about maximizing material contribution, but also maximizing value for all their stakeholders.

The UN has been clear that unlike the MDGs, the SDGs will require the full engagement and participation of businesses to make achieving these goals possible. For the last 15 years, businesses have shown their value in tackling global challenges through robust sustainability strategies and community investment programs. From investment in major infrastructure; protection of human rights and the planet’s ecosystem; improving opportunity, justice and prosperity; and engaging and educating consumers – business is being seen as a collaborative partner in building a better world. This creates an enormous opportunity for businesses to engage as a strong and positive influence on society and champion of our planet’s stability.

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Fortune favors the brave: Five key insights for taking action

1. Communicate more meaningfully

Communicating sustainability remains a tremendous challenge for even the most advanced companies and today’s consumers are demanding business play an active role in addressing social and environmental challenges. The arrival of the SDGs will only intensify the need to communicate better to an increasingly educated consumer base and will provide the language to do so.

2. Report with purpose

With GRI and the UN Global Compact & WBCSD’s implementation guide Compass, businesses should consider how to incorporate the SDGs into their reporting activity. This means a more proactive approach to demonstrating where and how the business is delivering material impacts against the global challenges outlined by the SDGs. In fact, the SDGs should provide the context, relevancy and value that are often lacking in sustainability reports.

3. Sync the strategy

The SDGs arrive at a crucial point in the sustainability agenda, with many businesses looking to review their strategies and 2020 goals. Identifying opportunities to link existing and new sustainability strategies to the global challenges outlined in the SDGs will enhance a business’ ability to reach sustainable growth.

4. Look across the value chain

Multinational companies will want to understand whether their company operations across different geographies impede or align to each country’s strategic initiatives for the SDGs.

5. Collaborate to innovate

Big impacts will require multiple layers to deliver. The SDGs will be a catalyst for innovative cross-sector, cross-issue and cross-geography collaborations that leverage respective strengths, assets and expertise all aimed to scale. Businesses should seek partnerships that are built on need and focus on innovative approaches to the indicators, as they will be the most impactful.

The SDGs arrive at a pinnacle moment for the sustainability agenda, with the mobilization of citizens at the 2014 Climate Week rally in New York City, a landmark case on climate change in the Dutch courts, and the cooperation of international governments leading up to COP21.

As a result, the business community faces a unique opportunity to explore – in collaboration with the rest of the global community – the potential for a problem solving agenda to the world’s biggest challenges. To learn more about the business opportunity and to get in touch with Salterbaxter MSLGROUP, visit

This article is a part of MSLGROUP’s sustainability report A Chance for Change: The Tipping Point for Sustainable Business . For more insights follow @BetheChance .

Nigel Salter Nigel is a well-known speaker, commentator and opinion former in the sustainability and citizenship space. He contributes regularly to the high level discussions around the world and specializes in providing strategic counsel to senior management teams and facilitating senior management dialogues across a wide range of strategy subjects and a wide range of industries. Connect with him on Twitter @nigelsalter2 .

kristina-joss Kristina is a senior sustainability professional with broad experience in corporate responsibility and sustainability consulting, strategic communications, and business development. She has specific expertise in advising global companies on sustainability, employee engagement and community investment issues material to their business. Connect with her on Twitter @kjoss_

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