Why do the 17 UN SDGs matter so much to your reputation, and how can you demonstrate your sustainability credentials?

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

What is your company doing to help reach the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and how can you measure it? And once you’re measuring it, how can you get noticed for doing so? For those of you not familiar with the United Nations program that was written in 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has 17 Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. These goals are no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry innovation and infrastructure, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water, life on land, peace and justice and strong institutions, and partnership for all the goals. These 17 goals have underneath them 960 events, 1,205 publications, 5,132 partnerships, and 174 targets. Within these 17 goals, a question will be, what can your business do to participate in making the world a better place? 

According to Keith Weed, the Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever, brands that have not yet caught up with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and are not thinking about how they will embed environmental and social sustainability within their business model will not be around in the next 50 years. In the automotive industry, with the rapid decline of some big brands and the growth of Tesla, consumers are saying no to traditional internal combustion engine cars and saying yes to electric-powered cars. Evidently, there is this shift in thinking across a number of different industries, if not all, awnd what’s interesting is that it’s quite possible for companies, big and small, to adopt one or any number of these 17 goals, and there are steps and guides in order to identify best practices, not only on a tactical level, but also to incorporate it into the businesses. Catherine Griffin, the founder of a company called Impact.able Analytics, is working with business founders focused on sustainability which has now a part of the business model. It’s very attractive to consumers, and it should be, because it’s going to preserve the well-being of the planet. 

Achieving the UN SDGs and tracking your progress

As companies take part in the achievement of these SDGs, there are a number of ways to track and measure progress. One website is SDGfunders, and it’s funded by Candid, an organization that was originally called the Foundation Center. SDGfunders is also funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the MasterCard FoundationOn SDGfunders, there is an Indicator Wizard where you can input your own information, then it will give you an indication of how well you’re doing on the tracker along with a compass that can help you. It goes to show that at the heart of philanthropy and corporate governance is a drive to not only do good but to measure good as well. New companies and industries today are being built with sustainability not as a bolt on to the existing business, but as the business itself. This plays into the narrative that with COVID and global warming, companies and communities must play a role in the well-being of society and of the planet. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it’s what people want are interested in.

It’s no coincidence that a company like Tesla gets the kind of media coverage it does even though it sells less than 10% of the number of cars as VW. It gets much more favorable press, because it’s doing something with a purpose and a vision. In the SPEAK|pr methodology that talks about Storify, Personalise, Engage, Amplify, and to Know, in that Elon Musk story, there is an ambition to help people move to Mars and live a better life in a better world. So, sustainability at the very heart of a business isn’t just part of the narrative within a business model. It becomes the heart of what people buy and what people are interested in covering.

 Another option is the Good Business Guide from NIBusinessInfo. There, you will see a list of ways that you can measure the effects of your corporate social responsibility. You can track your performance measurements and set targets. You can also use the BITC‘s Responsible Business Tracker found on their website, which has a Responsible Business Map that is actually a very attractive chart. It covers the SDGs, it’s downloadable, and it has at its center purposeful leaders, future generations, purpose and values, governance and transparency, and policy engagement with leadership at every level, as well as stakeholder collaboration, supply chain, human rights, products and services. All of these are at the heart of the sustainability goals for a company, and then it has the other goals around it: education, good work, environment, diversity and inclusion, healthy ecosystems, net carbon zero, resource productivity, and health and well-being, and then it shows those as two halves of the same equation, which are the healthy communities and the healthy environment. 

How to join and win awards for sustainability

Starting with those 17 UN SDGs, we are now moving into much more tactical plans and tools that companies at any level can use. If companies don’t start to get involved in developing these, they may perish just as the head of Unilever’s Marketing has suggested. But what if you are doing these things? What if you’re already running an eco-friendly business? Well, there are a number of different awards that people can enter. In the UK, there are the International CSR Excellence Awards, the Global Good Awards, the newspaper-led Guardian Sustainable Business Awards, and the Ethical Corporation’s Responsibility Business Awards. Increasingly, the community will want to celebrate those companies that are involved in helping to promote either a healthy community, a healthy environment, or both in all of those different dimensions. 

Photo from Pronounce Media

Corporate social responsibility has always suffered in the past as being seen as a thing to do well and to look good, but it didn’t really have a measurable impact on a business’ well-being. Now, with all these technological advancements, it’s becoming possible to measure the financial impact of sustainable activity. There’s a new generation of analytics which will generate results that show the return on capital employed and the direct economic impact of that work. That’s going to be very powerful, because it’ll mean that when people are raising money for a new venture that maybe takes carbon out of the air or reduces the amount of oil or plastics people are using, they’ll be able to demonstrate a metric or a return on investment. Things are changing, because audiences, consumers, and partners will start to judge a company based on not only what it makes, but how it makes it; not only who it employs, but how their employees are treated. Consciousness and awareness are at the forefront of customers’ minds, and companies like Tesla reflect that. In earlier days, companies like Body Shop already exemplified this new ethos.

If you want to change something, if you want to create something good, there cannot be a negative impact as a result of creating something good. Having a low carbon footprint can’t be at the expense of high and exploitative use of labor. It’s what’s called a balanced scorecard where you have good profit and low impact. That is going to matter more and more, and it can be used by companies as part of their public relations stories. People will be interested in how companies make things, but they’ll also be interested in the byproducts of it as well as the ethical and sustainable impact, as corporate, socially responsible citizens are growing in number and they are essential for long-term growth. Not only that, more and more employees want to work for companies that are making a difference. It’s possible then to take the CSR activity that you’re involved in, however big or small, and translate that into public relations. In the SPEAK|pr progarm, this is is really what storification is about. It’s about that narrative of the business. The key message is that how the business is run is going to be in the spotlight. Sustainability, much like healthcare and the approach to health during COVID, is going to be a key part of anybody’s public relations narrative from now on, so look for ways to get involved and celebrate those through public relations activities.


This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from United Nations

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