The Role of Business in Addressing the Sustainable Development Goals

This post was co-authored by Kindred – The Membership for Socially Responsible Leaders.

This year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) spotlighted the need for cross-sector collaboration to get back on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The disruptive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with vaccine inequity, devastating reports on climate change, and ongoing social justice issues have emphasized the need for decisive action from governments and businesses. Moreover, there must be a particular focus on how each of these actions will impact the intended audience and the broader social context and environment surrounding them.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were launched in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and serve as a roadmap for a more sustainable and equitable future. The 17 goals address various global issues, including poverty eradication, hunger, education, gender equality, and more. For many private-sector organizations, these goals provide a framework to consider the societal impact of their business operations. 

We’ve seen a strong increase in focus from the business community on the SDGs in recent years. According to a 2019 PwC study, business leaders increasingly recognize the need to take action to achieve the SDGs. Of the 1,141 companies analyzed, 72% mentioned the SDGs in public reporting. Discussions on the SDGs internally are on the rise, too, with the percentage of public acknowledgment of the goals from CEOs and Chairs growing from 13% in 2018 to 21% in 2019, indicating an increased focus from the executive perspective. But while businesses may incorporate the goals into their strategies, reaching the lofty goals set by the United Nations will require that the business community works closely with governments and civil society to ensure that solutions are sustainable and inclusive for all communities. 

Kindred, the membership built to prepare leaders for the future of socially responsible business, recently hosted an Assembly event with Handshake, a social impact agency, to discuss how corporations can take an intersectional and inclusive approach to achieve the SDGs. The event, moderated by Sonya Jackson, Senior Advisor at Handshake, featured expert panelists Annemarie Hou, Acting Executive Director for the UN Office for Partnerships and Senior Communications Advisor for the Office of the Secretary-General; Nabeela Rasheed, VP of Intellectual Property at Amunix Pharmaceuticals; and Tara Abrahams, Head of Impact at The Meteor. 

Below are key insights from their conversation that leaders can apply as they approach the SDGs in their organizations.

1. Building sustainable solutions to climate change requires engaging directly with local communities.

Creating equitable change requires a participatory and inclusive approach that prioritizes engagement with individuals and communities who have been most affected by the social and environmental emergencies of our time. The panelists emphasized the need to listen carefully and keep systemic context in mind while providing solutions for those who are most in need of support. This is particularly important for companies operating on an international scale. “You have to be intersectional if you have any chance at having impact, otherwise you’re not solving the right problem. You haven’t even defined the problem correctly,” Tara Abraham said. 

In the past few years, the UN has adopted a systems thinking approach to the SDGs that recognizes the potential for challenges to overlap and goals to interconnect. Now, businesses have an opportunity to apply a similar lens to their strategies, recognize where they can make the most impact at scale, and create pathways for communities to join the conversation.

2. Collaborations and partnerships are necessary for progress.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a myriad of social inequities that require immediate, tangible action. According to the UN’s Annemarie Hou, these inequities have highlighted that the objectives of the SDGs are relevant at a global level and often in interrelating contexts. Given their wide reach, achieving the goals will require different groups and sectors to listen, collaborate, and partner on solutions. She points to the participation of K-pop group BTS at UNGA as an example of cross-sector collaboration between the UN, the Government of the Republic of Korea, and the private sector. “These are some 17 really big goals, and no one can do them alone, no country, no business, no single individual can take them on,” she said.

As more companies recognize the need to participate in achieving the SDGs, leaders should view the goals through the lens of meeting the needs in the present without compromising the needs of the future. To that end, transparency and collaboration about what solutions have worked and what hasn’t been successful will go a long way in driving progress. For successful partnerships, look for the common ground that will enable groups to build connections faster and reach people more quickly. 

3. Governance provides a framework for progress

Shifts in expectations from stakeholders have pushed the business community to acknowledge their role in implementing the SDGs. Amunix’s Nabeela Rasheed points out that regulation can positively impact this context, making it easier for companies to move forward cohesively. While recognizing that many companies are already thinking toward the future in their approaches, she points to the SEC’s upcoming climate- and human capital management-related metrics as a guideline for organizational success. 

The SEC is expected to promote new disclosure requirements related to climate change by the end of 2021 or early next year. The requirements will focus on disclosures in SEC filings, corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, and other company materials and how companies’ operating procedures apply to climate change disclosures. 

In the meantime, companies can look to others who are leading on sustainability reporting to develop new metrics on organizational success in this area.

4. Achieving the SDGs begins with the individual

Taking an intersectional approach to the SDGs starts with leaders understanding the overlap of their work with the communities and individuals surrounding them. As Rasheed explains, bringing one’s whole self to the process of building sustainable solutions will only positively impact the output.

“Understanding the intersections at which I live and requiring the spaces that I work in to respect those intersections actually made me a better employee, it made me a better participant, it made me a better person,” she said.

Additionally, with businesses being held accountable on environmental, social and governance (ESG) topics and the SDGs gaining wider visibility, leaders have a significant opportunity to understand what actions are available to them in their own lives. “[T]here is now accountability built in by consumers, by shareholders, by stakeholders, by employees,” the UN’s Hou noted. “Whether it’s in a business, in a government or in a civil society, or in your community, or in your family, I think there is a role for everyone to keep that promise of really making sure that people are connected, people have education, people are able to find a job, and have a meaningful life.”

Looking Ahead

As companies forge a path toward greater collaboration on the SDGs, one key message from panelists resonates: the time to take action is now. “There will be no one to leave behind if we don’t do what it is that we need to do now,” Hou said. 

For leaders, this means paying particular attention to the urgency of addressing the climate crisis. Conversations around the role of business in building sustainable solutions around climate will continue at COP26, the UN’s Climate Change Conference. The event, which kicks off on October 31, aims to accelerate collaboration between governments, businesses, and civil society to deliver on climate goals. Through collaboration, partnerships, and engaging communities, leaders will have more opportunities to deepen engagement and drive tangible change on climate and other Sustainable Development Goals.