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Introduction

Over the past six months, we have interviewed some 50 organizations worldwide – global corporations, mission-driven companies, investors, thought leaders, think tanks and industry associations – about their approach to using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a business context. We approached the subject with the thesis that more companies were using the SDGs to realign their business strategy and change their operations to improve their competitive posture and help meet the goals for society and the environment. In the process we became familiar with a wide range of philosophies, systems and methods for operationalizing the SDGs for business. In this paper we cover our discoveries from our conversations with leaders of the corporate sustainability movement.

Everything or Anything

How Businesses Can Start with the SDGs

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to investigate how companies are reacting to the launch of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, either by updating their existing sustainability initiatives or launching new programs.

 

Methodology

Interviews were performed with more than 60 multinational corporations, SMEs, startups, investors and financial institutions, NGOs and industry associations.

 

Findings

The field of reporting on SDG impacts is in flux, but most companies that have sustainability programs are aware for the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Agenda and are trying to figure out how they can use their current approaches to sustainability to map their efforts to the SDGs. Companies just starting the sustainability journey have a wealth of options to choose from for measurement, disclosure and crafting strategy.

 

Originality/value

Our survey of companies’ approaches to aligning their sustainability programs with the SDGs sheds light on a wealth of strategies and best practices to pursuing this course of action.

 

KEYWORDS

Sustainable Development Goals, Sustainability, ESG, Disclosure, Corporate Governance

Now there’s a plan

And just like that, suddenly, the earth has a strategy: The release of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 was the culmination of an over century-long, international evolution in our understanding of social and environmental issues. But more than this, the business world too has a new pilot in its social journey. The global consensus represented by the launch of the SDGs is intimately connected to the development of corporate philosophy and practices, in particular to an understanding of the responsibilities of business that goes back to the mid-20th century.

Starting from the idea of the social responsibility of businesses – way before the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as we know it today – a public discussion arose during the expansion of the industrial revolution that includes a focus on environmental and community issues. These ideas coalesced in the 1990s into a well-defined set of criteria that companies needed to understand, report and improve upon: their Environmental, Social and Governance, or ESG, positions.

From that decade till now, ESG has transformed from being a generally agreed upon but loosely defined concept with which to identify businesses’ obligations to society, to one that has a robust ecosystem of principles, frameworks and standards bodies for understanding, measuring, reporting and defining strategy around ESG issues and the broader – and highly relevant – practice of sustainability in a corporate context.

This paper discusses: how companies can make business cases for sustainability reporting and strategy development; whole systems approaches to understand how their companies exist within their marketplaces, value chains and communities; what options they have to do the most relevant reporting and operations transformations today; and how the SDGs will transform all these threads into a new, integrated whole approach to business.

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