Should the UK private sector align its strategies with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals?
By Rachel Whale, Founder and CEO, Koreo — The Women’s Marches which took place around the world on January 21st were a reminder of the power of international narratives for social change. In the face of growing international uncertainty, and clear anxiety about the nature of the political discourse, millions of people were united by a set of common values which resonated beyond continents.
I believe the UN’s Global Goals, formally known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), should provide a similar opportunity to guide and organise the work of mission-driven organisations all over the world, including in the UK. Research that Koreo conducted with 500 HR leaders showed that the Goals were already making their way into the day to day work of almost half UK companies (48%), and only 17% of HR leaders weren’t aware of them.
Like converting the huge positive energy of the Women’s Marches into sustained action, translating the Goals into tangible impact in a local context will be challenging. But in that challenge lies a huge opportunity.
Agreed in September 2015, the Goals seek to address the defining issues of our time: from ending poverty and hunger to improving health and education, achieving gender equality, and combating climate change. Put together after long consultation, and consisting of 17 goals and 169 targets, the Goals represent the most ambitious development agenda ever agreed by the UN’s member states.
Their ambition is also their challenge. The problems they outline are so complex, and so interrelated, that individual people and organisations could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed. With such enormous targets, what do these goals mean in practice for UK organisations, and what’s the most powerful contribution we can make?
The Response by Sector
Since the Goals were agreed in 2015, organisations across public, private and social sectors have been trying to answer those questions. As befits a global agenda with huge breadth and ambition, the current implementation of the goals is as varied as it is inconsistent.
While the UK has been criticised for a lack of political leadership on the goals, some national governments, e.g. China and Norway, have put in place new mechanisms to coordinate SDG action. Others, e.g. Germany and Finland), have committed to implementation being guided at the highest political level.
Likewise, some corporations have taken a lead – seeing the Goals as both a responsibility and an opportunity – while others have either not responded at all, or not explicitly linked their activity to the Goals. Given that 90% of consumers think it’s important businesses sign up to the goals, it is perhaps surprising that our research showed companies engaging with the goals to be in the minority (39%).
Unilever, whose CEO Paul Polman is one of the Goals’ loudest supporters in the business community, have integrated the Goals into their Sustainable Living Plan, sustainable living brands, and a transformational change agenda. Polman is quoted as saying that these sustainable living brands accounted for half the company's growth in 2014 and grew at twice the rate of the rest of the business [link].
Siemens have also engaged explicitly, linking their sustainability agenda with the goals. Take their work on SDG 11 - helping cities focus on technologies which can upgrade infrastructure, reduce carbon footprint, improve quality of life for citizens.
In the social sector, the picture is similar. NGOs like Care International have been applying the Goals into their work in developing countries and their own work and systems, while the number of domestic charities explicitly aligning their work to the Goals is limited in our experience.
Towards a Cross Sector Approach
But the ultimate promise of the Goals is not in the isolated actions of individual organisations. Rather, it is in their potential to produce a shared agenda for social change across sectors, and, as a result, to broker new partnerships and facilitate learning between the different actors engaged in similar work. To my mind, this is where some of the most exciting SDG-related work is happening.
One example is the Cities Changing Diabetes partnership, convened by pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, whose outgoing CEO Lars Rebien Sorensen has twice running been top of Harvard Business Review’s CEO-ranking, partly because of the firm’s commitment to social impact. Contributing to SDGs 3 and 11 (good health and sustainable cities) the partnership is a platform for cross-disciplinary, cross-sector collaboration to respond to the rise in urban diabetes around the world.
My hope is that this type of partnership work, employing the various strengths of organisations in different sectors and with different motivations, is something we can take inspiration from in a national context.
I look across this work and I feel inspired by the sheer vibrancy and endeavour which characterises the work already aligned to the Goals, whether that work comes from the private, public or social sector. But I also see two big opportunities, both of which I think are currently undervalued.
Firstly, I would like to see the people and organisations working in the social change ecosystem in the UK to translate the Goals into a UK context and use that narrative to galvanize social action. It is probably fair to say that the organisations to engage most fully with the Goals so far have had an international footprint or focus, but there is no reason this agenda shouldn’t translate. We’ve started that process ourselves with our project the Koreo Prize, which translates the goals into six current issues facing the UK, and challenges young people to explore them in a way that embraces their complexity.
Secondly, as someone who has spent the last 20 years developing talent for mission-driven organisations through consultancy and programmes like Charityworks and Change100, I can’t help but think of the huge opportunity the Goals provide to engage and develop staff.
Talent will always be fundamental to an organisation’s ability to drive change, both internally and externally. In our research, we found that leaders saw their employees as the factor most likely to drive their organisation’s social impact. As the fight for talent becomes ever fiercer, and talent becomes more and more socially conscious, the goals should give employers of all types and sizes an opportunity to provide their staff with a platform to engage with social issues through their work.
If we can bring the Goals to life for our organisations and employees in the UK, we will have a potent tool to drive both organisational performance and social impact. The pockets of practice I’ve referred to above are exciting, but the opportunity is so much greater.
Rachel Whale is Founder and CEO of Koreo, a leading UK people development provider for organisations with social purpose.