Business and the Sustainable Development Goals: What to Expect and How to Lead

September 22, 2015
  • Racheal Meiers

    Former Director, BSR

As job creators, purveyors of products and services, and the largest collective investor in the world, global business contributes significantly to economic development. And when it strives for quality employment, creates products and services that meet the needs and improve the circumstances of the world’s vulnerable, and invests capital mindfully to benefit communities and the environment, global business can become a prominent contributor to more sustainable development.

In a few days, the member states of the United Nations will formally adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 ambitious targets to address major social and environmental challenges and support a more equitable and resilient future for all of us. As the SDGs are adopted, companies that engage strategically will reap numerous benefits for increased visibility, better informed investments, and greater impacts from sustainability commitments for both society and business interests.

The SDGs follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), introduced in 2000 and concluding this year. We saw significant achievements under the MDGs, including reducing extreme poverty by half, achieving gender parity in primary education and increased women’s political participation, saving millions of lives from malaria and tuberculosis, and improving access to water for more than two billion people. But the MDGs also fell short, including on reducing child and maternal mortality, eliminating chronic under-nutrition of children, and achieving universal access to primary education and to adequate sanitation.

In addition to continuing efforts to maintain the progress achieved by the MDGs and accelerate progress on the incomplete goals, the SDGs also respond to a rapidly changing world. Today, inequality is growing in rich and poor countries alike, climate change is already beginning to show devastating impacts, and innovations to support new solutions—from renewable energy to healthcare to models of employment—are sweeping across the global economy.

Why the SDGs Are Important for Business

Broad by design, the SDGs offer a framework for impact across sectors, forming a critical platform for collaboration. Aligning your sustainability strategy with the SDGs, and using the SDGs to increase your sustainability ambition levels, will create opportunities for partnerships to help you reach your goals and achieve greater impact in the process.

More specifically, governments, multilateral institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and companies will pour investment into initiatives supporting the SDGs. This funding will affect supply chains and markets and increase access to energy, technology, and products, such as health and financial services. Participating in this process will create business opportunities related to sustainability strategies, consumer engagement, market expansion, and beyond. 

The UN and supporting entities—such as government aid agencies like USAID and DFID, or multilateral organizations like the World Bank—can provide powerful communications outlets for your work and relationship-building opportunities with national governments and other partners. In some cases, they may be able to contribute financial support to your efforts.

The SDGs were created through an inclusive, collaborative process, which included the consultation and buy-in of nine major stakeholder groups and all the UN member states. Aligning your goals and achievements with such an inclusive process can enhance the credibility of your sustainability goals and help you ensure that you are having the greatest impact possible. 

Building Your SDG Strategy

The best approach to building an SDG strategy is integration with your sustainability strategy. To start, you can conduct a benchmarking study against the SDGs to understand how you are already contributing to the goals. In this process, you can also identify specific goals where you may be leading, and those that may require more attention or investment.

Another key question to examine is where partnerships—with companies in your sector or other sectors, governments, civil society, and more—may help you contribute to the SDGs more effectively and reach your sustainability goals more efficiently.

You can also use the SDGs for cross-departmental engagement: For many companies, mapping business priorities against the SDGs may identify exciting opportunities for sustainability integration. For example, if you are a company looking to grow your consumer base in Africa, or with significant supply chains in South Asia, or focused on mobile tech, or providing smart-cities solutions, the SDGs and associated partnerships may align meaningfully with specific business priorities.

From an internal perspective, finding ways to articulate the SDGs and your involvement with them in the context of the corporate values, terms, and frameworks that your employees already know will help support employee engagement, buy-in, and enthusiasm.

Challenges to Anticipate

The opportunities of the SDGs—inclusivity, broad language, partnership potential, and visibility—also carry with them inherent challenges to watch out for and manage. Their broad nature and seemingly boundless relevance threatens to render them irrelevant and impossible to measure. We feel, however, that integration with your existing sustainability approach will balance against this challenge.

The inclusive nature of the SDG process and the potential for partnerships that it creates can also slow things down and create roadblocks to individual progress. To mitigate this risk, we recommend selecting a few strategic areas to pursue multistakeholder partnerships, alongside a larger set of measureable commitments that you can fulfill on your own or with the support of existing, trusted partners.

BSR’s Support and Involvement

We’ve already started working with a few of our members on their approach to the SDGs, including stakeholder insight gathering, assessing current activities against the SDGs, and building strategic approaches to integration within sustainability strategies.  

We’re looking forward to participating in many of the events surrounding the SDG launch, and we hope to see you there.


To learn more about participating in the sustainable development agenda, join BSR, Microsoft, and Pfizer at a BSR Conference 2015 breakout session, “Implementing the SDGs: A How-To Guide,” taking place November 5 in San Francisco.  

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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