The Sustainable Development Goals – How to go from aligning icons to driving impact.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations General Assembly are a blueprint for the world to achieve sustainable development and have received increasing attention by the business community. They neatly capture all of the world’s issues from poverty to climate to peace and justice and are intended to act as a framework that helps not just government, but also business contribute to the SDGs and help solve the globe’s most pressing challenges.

The 17 brightly coloured SDG icons may have recently caught your eye and made you ponder: Which of these are relevant to my business? How can we contribute? And how do they apply to what we’re already doing? We think these questions just scrape the tip of the iceberg, and the real question we should be asking is how is my business impacting upon sustainable development and how can the SDGs provide a framework to reduce that impact?

So how are companies are using the SDGs?

So far, the SDGs could be seen as another ‘in vogue’ sustainability framework that businesses are utilising as an easy add-on to their existing sustainability strategies and marketing collateral. A quick review of corporate strategies that have incorporated the SDGs as the favoured approach show that most have mapped or aligned them to existing business operations and activities. A few examples of how they are incorporated are:

‘The SDG wheel and icons are used throughout the report to show which SDGs are linked to stories, data and case studies.’

‘We have mapped the Sustainable Development Goals on our business operations for alignment.’

‘SDG icons throughout the report indicate examples of our activities that support the goals.’

‘Each section describes our goals and how they align with the Sustainable Development Goals.’

This is in no way wrong. Mapping the SDGs to what’s material to the business or to current goals and initiatives is a great start and demonstrates a level of commitment to sustainable development and an understanding of the issues. But we think there is potential to have a much greater impact than simply aligning and linking.

Impact – the key word that is lacking so far. Measuring the positive impact of initiatives is crucial. But a step before that, is the question of what is the actual impact of the business according to the SDGs? Often what a business believes is a material impact, is not the true impact (in a negative sense) of its operations and supply chains.  For example, an organisation believes that gender equality is the most relevant SDG to its business, when actually the most significant impact the business operations has is on labour rights in its overseas supply chains.

Currently only 15% of businesses are assessing impact against relevant SDGs. Research by the University of Queensland found that there is a big disparity between a company’s public commitments and what impact is actually being achieved. When impact on the SDGs have not been assessed or measured, those public commitments appear empty and half-hearted.

SDG + LCA = Impact

The SDGs do not provide a strategy for achieving impact alone. What’s missing is the mechanism to deliver the impact. This is where life cycle assessment (or LCA) comes in. Conveniently, LCA impacts are a perfect match for the 17 goals that represent the global challenges for sustainable development. SDGs provide the framework and LCA provides the mechanism to identify the impact, the risks and the opportunities.

At Edge, we use a Life Cycle Assessment approach for measuring the impact of a business’s products, supply chains or even entire organisations. We can assess impact using an environmental or a social lens (Read more about Social LCA here) on the entire supply chain. Once informed by the results of the LCA the business impacts can then be mapped to the SDGs, creating a clear pathway for both risk mitigation and maximisation of opportunities, helping to achieve sustainable development.

Focusing on the environmental and social impact of a business is a much more productive and meaningful way to contribute to the SDGs compared to matching icons with initiatives. The information gained using an LCA empowers businesses to take a proactive approach to supply chain management and improvement of its operations. The SDG framework combined with an effective mechanism for assessing impact has real power to influence business behaviour, inform decision making and ultimately set strategic objectives and direction. It is an opportunity that offers immense value to progress on global sustainable development and to business itself.

To find out more about using the SDGs and LCA to create real impact, contact Nicole at nicole@edgeenvironment.com.

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