In September 2015, the United Nations (UN) adopted a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity as part of a new sustainable development agenda.
According to the SDG's 2018 Report, the participation and reporting of countries is hopeful, but progress has not been rapid enough.
"Achieving the 2030 Agenda requires immediate and accelerated actions by countries along with collaborative partnerships among governments and stakeholders at all levels," wrote the report's authors.
As the corporate world continues to embrace sustainability, acknowledging and reporting on the SDGs has become increasingly popular. A February 2018 study by KPMG found that four in 10 of the world's largest companies already reference the SDGs in their corporate reporting.
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often can't approach the goals in the same manner as large corporations or governments, but that doesn't mean it's okay to do nothing. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), SMEs account for an overwhelming majority of private sector business and economic activity in both developed and developing countries.
Given the role of small business in the global economy, it is essential to understand the potential contribution in the progression toward the sustainable development goals and why they are so important.
The case for participation
Tracy Triggs-Matthews, associate director of UNC Kenan-Flagler's Center for Sustainable Enterprise, said SMEs typically do not have the time for higher level strategic thinking on sustainability unless the enterprise started out with such a mindset.
"I think many SMEs would be surprised to see how 'good' their company already is and how small tweaks can make them even better," she said. "Consumers are looking for brands that are making a big difference and being able to tell that story will only help differentiate an SME among competitors."
Although some incentives to embrace the goals lie in the realm of contributing to the greater good and a better future, there are countless potential benefits for small businesses to consider.
"I think the way for businesses to look at the UN's sustainable development goals is through the lens of business opportunity," said Tensie Whelan, director of NYU's Center for Sustainable Business.
According to the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, sustainable business models could open economic opportunities worth $12 trillion and create 380 million jobs by 2030.
"Putting the Sustainable Development Goals, or Global Goals, at the heart of the world's economic strategy could unleash a step change in growth and productivity, with an investment boom in sustainable infrastructure as a critical driver," the report said.
Regardless of size or industry, all companies can contribute to the SDGs. The UN Global Compact asks companies to first do business responsibly and then pursue opportunities to solve societal challenges through business innovation and collaboration.
The Compact recommends that businesses utilize an SDG compass to measure the progress and alignment of your business operations with the SDGs. The SDG compass guide is developed with a focus on large multinational enterprises. SMEs and other organizations are also encouraged to use it as "a source of inspiration and adapt as necessary."
Given the overwhelming influx of information available and the general lack of expertise compared to larger companies, it's easy to see why SMEs would struggle to identify how they should contribute.
A closer look at the goals
Based on the UN's targets and indicators for the SDGs, the SDG Compass, a list of "Good Life Goals" set by lifestyle consultancy FUTERRA and advice from SME executives, small businesses can adopt the following practices to start taking SDG action.
Some of these items may be more relevant to certain industries than others, and there are certainly many other ways that businesses can approach the goals, but any step toward sustainability is a step in the right direction.
1. End poverty
- Set and enforce strict non-discriminatory policies
- Recruit, train, and employ local community members, including those living in poverty, and integrate them in your value chain
2. Zero hunger
- Support and encourage small-scale farming, practice farm-to-table or 'farm-to-office snacks' sourcing from local entities whenever possible
- Demonstrate transparency in the agricultural supply chain
3. Good health and well-being
- Offer employee health benefits
- Make investments in health a priority in business operations.
4. Quality education
- Create programs (e.g., internships, work-study programs, traineeships, etc.) that give students earlier access to the corporate environment
- Provide employees with continuous opportunities to improve their (job) skills for their current and future employment
5. Gender equality
- Pay equal remuneration, including benefits, for work of equal value
- Support access to child and dependent care by providing services, resources, and information to both women and men
- Establish a zero-tolerance policy towards all forms of violence at work, including verbal/ and/ or physical abuse
6. Clean water and sanitation
- Prioritize water efficiency by installing best-practice technologies for water conservation
- Educate employees about the importance of water efficiency
- Prohibit the use of chemicals and materials that can be particularly detrimental to water quality if improperly disposed
7. Affordable and clean energy
- Pursue efficient certifications, like LEED or Energy Star
- Prioritize energy efficiency across all operations, preserve light, heating, cooling, etc. whenever possible
8. Decent work and economic growth
- Offer apprenticeship opportunities
- Foster entrepreneurial culture and invest in/mentor young entrepreneurs
- Install a firm policy against unfair hiring and recruitment practices
9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
- Establish standards and promote regulation that ensures company projects and initiatives are sustainably managed
- Promote innovation by giving all stakeholders the opportunity to offer creative solutions to sustainability challenges
10. Reduced inequalities
- Invest in business-driven poverty eradication activities (e.g., develop living wage policy)
- Partner with civil society networks to provide education and entrepreneurial skills training
11. Sustainable cities and communities
- Jointly develop and/or participate in a sustainable community that brings together relevant stakeholders through a common and neutral platform to jointly analyze, discuss, and act on urban functionality, resilience, and sustainable development
- Support and utilize public transportation services
12. Responsible consumption and production
- Reduce manufacturing impacts by substituting virgin raw materials in products with post-consumer materials through recycling and upcycling
- Significantly reduce waste and ensure that any unavoidable waste is utilized to the fullest degree (e.g., organic waste as fuel or fertilizer).
13. Climate action
- Retrofit the lighting systems of the company’s facilities to energy-efficient LED lighting.
- Understand climate risk and build resilience into the company’s assets and supply chain.
- Expand sustainable forest management through responsible sourcing practices and product substitution.
14. Life below water
- Track the life cycle of products and materials to understand how they are disposed and which products could likely find their way into marine environments.
- Record and disclose information on the chemical and material usage within products, packaging, and processing systems to facilitate closing the loop.
- Prevent waste mismanagement or littering that could pollute the marine environment.
15. Life on land
- Measure, manage, and mitigate impacts on ecosystems and natural resources.
- Scale up best practices for land-use planning and management.
- Commit to and implement responsible sourcing practices beyond compliance – applying environmental and social safeguards – for all raw materials and commodities.
16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
- Comply with laws and seek to meet international standards; require and support business partners to do the same.
17. Partnerships for the goals
- Partake in SDG-related partnerships like the UN's Make the Global Goals Local campaign, the SDG reporting initiative and locally based sustainability initiatives
Transparency and reporting
If your company is new to sustainability, focus on operating responsibly. Communicate your practices to consumers regardless of how you address this responsible operation, whether it be with the SDGs, a certification or employee initiatives.
For example, one T-shirt production company in North Carolina, tsdesigns, strives to make its supply chain as transparent as possible. President Eric Henry said that sustainability is not limited to a product or a business – it's the whole picture. For anyone curious about the company's business operations, tsdesigns offers monthly tours of the facilities to ensure transparency.
"We continue to reduce our footprint and hope that it will inspire others to do the same," Henry said.
Remember, the "global goals" are intended for all tiers of business, and each company will approach the goals differently according to their operations. It's important to first understand the goals, define priorities, integrate, and, finally, report and communicate the progress of their implementation.
Triggs-Matthews suggests that an SME should begin by creating a tiered system analyzing goals they have already positively addressed, goals that could be easily accomplished and goals that would take time and money to accomplish.
"There is no way to tell all SMEs, 'start with this…'" she said. "Each enterprise will need to look at the 17 goals and determine for themselves how and where their business practices fit into those goals."