Last reviewed 15 May 2018

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a universal call to end poverty and protect the planet. According to the UN, the private sector has a pivotal role to play in making this happen. In this report, John Barwise highlights the areas of common interest, identifies which SDGs are linked to environmental management standards and explains how businesses are getting involved.

The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which incorporates 17 global SDGs, and 169 targets, was adopted by all Member States of the United Nations in September 2015. SDGs officially came into effect on 1 January 2016 and apply to every country.

SDGs build on the successes of the earlier Millennium Development Goals to end global poverty and hunger while expanding into new areas such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice, health and wellbeing. The 17 goals are universal and interconnected — a package of measures that need to be considered in an integrated way.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals

The SDGs are an inclusive agenda and provide clear guidelines and targets for all countries to adopt in accordance with their own priorities and the environmental challenges of the world at large. Details of how SDGs engage and interact with the business community are available on the UN SDG website here.

SDGs — business matters

SDGs provide a template for sustainable growth at national and international level and provide tangible insights for companies on how they can create economic, social and environmental value. Crucially, the global business community was actively involved in shaping the 17 SDGs, along with national bodies, and in formulating the 169 targets needed to achieve them.

Aligning with the SDGs allows businesses to respond to the risks and opportunities they face in a changing world, and the response from companies across most sectors has been encouraging. A recent survey carried out by PwC shows that 71% of businesses are already planning how they intend to engage with the SDGs, 41% say SDGs will be incorporated into their business strategy within five years and 13% have identified the tools they need to assess their business impacts against SDGs.

Commenting on the PwC survey, Michael Meehan, Chief Executive, Global Reporting Initiative, said: “This research identifies the high level of SDG awareness among the business community and highlights the opportunity to convert this awareness into action.”

The SDF framework includes goals that directly affect industry, including innovation and infrastructure, responsible consumption and production, and climate action, as well as updating millennial goals, such as those affecting health and wellbeing that can also impact on business activity. All countries have some way to go to achieve all of them.

The PwC survey report Make It Your Business: Engaging with the Sustainable Development Goals is available here.

SDGs — Links to environmental management

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has recently integrated SDGs into its revised business plan to ensure businesses have the flexibility to adapt to changing environmental conditions, including the depletion of natural resources, increased pollution and climate change.

ISO subcommittee (SC1), which has overall responsibility for ISO environmental management standards, has identified a number of standards that directly link to SDGs, such as those related to clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; industry, innovation and infrastructure; responsible consumption and production; climate action; marine environment; and life on land.

SDGs cover both mitigations of environmental impacts and adaptation to changes in the environment, both of which are covered by SC1 environmental standard portfolio. SC1 cites ISO 14001 as a key certifiable standard for managing environmental responsibilities linked to SDGs, with respect to the following.

  • Environment protection — including protecting the environment from degradation and pollution, sustainable resource use, climate change mitigation and adaptation, protection of biodiversity and ecosystems, etc.

  • Environmental performance — continual improvement in business environmental performance.

  • Lifecycle perspective — extending an organisation’s control and influence over all stages of a product’s life — from materials extraction through manufacturing to distribution, end use and disposal or reuse.

  • Strategic Environmental Management — increased focus on environmental issues within an organisation’s strategic planning processes, managing risk, understanding expectation of stakeholders and taking into account local, regional or global environmental conditions that can be affected by the organisation.

  • Leadership — promoting environmental management within the organisation and across supply chains.

In addition to ISO 14001, other standards in the ISO 14000 series of standards support SDGs in areas such as ecodesign of products (ISO 14006), environmental labelling (ISO 14020), environmental performance (ISO 14031), lifecycle assessment (ISO 14040), managing water resources (ISO 14046), greenhouse gas emissions (ISO 14064) and measuring carbon footprints (ISO 14067).

Other ISO standards that support SDGs include the following.

  • ISO 50001 — Energy Management Systems — Requirements with Guidance for Use provides a management structure for improving energy performance and conserve resources.

  • ISO 20400 — Sustainable Procurement — Guidance directly linked to SDGs, this standard deals with sustainable procurement of goods and services across supply chains.

  • ISO 26000 — Guidance on Social Responsibility offers 450 recommendations related to the SDGs and provides guidance on how organisations can operate in an ethical and transparent way that contributes to sustainable development, taking account of the expectations of stakeholders and applicable laws.

According to the ISO SC1 business plan, there are still a number of SDGs that are not adequately covered in the SC1 standards portfolio, including:

  • ecosystem, biodiversity and natural resources which while mentioned in ISO 14001 are not necessarily seen as part of an organisation’s aspects, impacts and the environmental conditions

  • terms and language in UN SDG 9 related to industry, innovation and infrastructure specifically related to resource efficiency

  • terms and language in UN SDG 12 related to responsible consumption and production specifically related to efficient use of natural resources

  • how environmental issues support social and human issues of education — while SC1 standards (specifically ISO 14001) cover awareness that is not the same as education.

To support further integration of SDGs into ISO environmental standards, the SC1 business plan recommends further work in the following areas:

  • communicating in more detail how its standards link with the topics of ecosystem, biodiversity and natural resources

  • studying UN SDGs language and goals in detail in determining which environmental topics should be included in ISO 14002, eg environmental aspects and managing natural resource efficiency

  • communicating how SC1 standards relate to UN SDG terms such as innovation, responsible consumption, etc

  • continuing to develop material circulation and resource efficiency models, which for SC1 relate specifically to SDG 9 and SDG 12

  • communicating how SC1 standards can support human and social issues even if they are not directly related.

Over the next five years, SC1 will work specifically on material circulation and resource efficiency, focusing on ‘sustainable and efficient use of resources linked to SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) and UN SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production). UN SDG 12 is also covered by ISO 14006 (ecodesign).

SDGs — the business drivers

The business imperative for engaging in the SDGs is based on both the values of the business and the values that businesses derive from engaging in the SDG process. The PwC survey, for example, ranks SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) as the top SDG that businesses perceive has the most impact on their activities and which offers them the greatest business opportunity.

Research carried out by the UN’s Division for Sustainable Development (DESA), shows that SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), is the goal that provides the most critical connections with other SDGs, and potentially a wider range of positive impacts in areas such as resource efficiency, environmental impacts and human wellbeing.

Conversely, SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) has fewer direct links to other goals but is a crucial driver for economic growth and sustainable development — particularly in areas such as mass transport, renewable energy, and stimulating growth in new innovative industries and communications technologies.

With 17 SDGs to consider, it is likely that most businesses will struggle as to which goals to prioritise — the PwC survey shows that only 1% of companies intend to assess their impacts across all 17 goals.

The Government recently published its strategy for implementing the UN’s SDGs in the UK. The aim is to fully embed all SDGs in each government department, which it says will be done in a planned and co-ordinated way. The Government’s approach emphasises how it intends to support developing countries in their efforts to implement the UN goals, but it also focuses on full implementation at home.

Much of the UK’s future economic growth will be linked directly to the UN’s SDGs including the Government’s Industrial Strategy, Clean Growth Strategy and its 25-Year Environment Plan. What is clear from the range of programmes already underway, and those likely to follow, is that the Government is keen to develop partnerships linking businesses, government departments and the social sectors to ensure all 17 SDGs and related targets are implemented in the UK by 2030.

Full details of the UK Government’s SDG programme is available here.