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Industry perspectives on the UN’s sustainable development goals

The business community faces major challenges contributing to the SDGs, risking their current models and existence, and needing a global event to trigger collective engagement.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were launched by the United Nations (UN) in 2015 to facilitate a transition to a more sustainable future. The UN called on all governments to develop national strategies to pursue the SDGs, but also acknowledged the role of the private sector in contributing to the achievement of these ambitious goals. Now, eight years on and halfway towards the 2030 target date, what has been the contribution of key industry sectors to the realisation of the SDGs?

The Sustainable Development Goals

Following the publication in 1987 of Our Common Future, the concept of sustainable development began to attract increasing attention around the globe. There were growing concerns about a range of major challenges and problems facing societies, environments and economies. The adoption of sustainability policies and practices was seen as a potential solution. It is against this background that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed upon by the United Nations’ member states in 2015 to establish the priorities for sustainable development through 2030.

The seventeen SDGs were seen by the United Nations as a plan of action to “shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path.” In addition to the SDGs, there are 169 associated targets. For every target, there are one or more “indicators”, and there are 241 in total.  From the outset, it was recognized that the private sector would need to play a key role. The Institute for Human Rights and Business emphasises the importance of the private sector in achieving the SDGs – “the private sector has been highlighted as a partner with the potential to contribute in multiple ways to development objectives: by stimulating economic growth and job creation, providing investment and finance and sharing the resources and knowledge needed to shape innovative solutions to global challenges.”

Industry Perspectives

Recent research has examined the responses of eighty organizations from eight different industries to the challenges set by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The findings show that SDGs 8, 12, and 13 were the most supported by these organizations, while SDGs 1, 2, 14, and 16 received the least support. 

Specifically, 85% of all companies supported SDG 13, 71% supported SDG 8 and 70% supported SDG 12. At the other end of the spectrum, only 30% or less of all companies supported SDGs 1, 2 and 16 (Table 1).  In the retail industry, more than a third of the 17 SDGs were supported by the ten organizations reviewed in that sector.

Retailing aside, the most supportive industry sectors were pharmaceuticals and energy. The widespread support for SDG 13 reflects the global concern for the impact of climate change, and support for SDGs 8 and 12 arguably reflects what is deemed most appropriate by the private sector. The lack of support for the SDGs concerning poverty, peace and justice, and hunger may reflect stakeholder priorities and what is considered realistically achievable.

SDG No.GoalIndustry Support
13Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts85
8Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all71
12Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns70
3Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being  for all at all ages64
5Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls57
7Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all50
6Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all47
9Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation46
11Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable46
17Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development45
4Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all45
10Reduce inequality within and among countries37
15Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss36
14Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development31
2End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture30
16Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels30
1End poverty in all its forms everywhere26
Table 1. Percentage of 80 companies and organisations supporting each SDG

Many companies have aligned a number of specific SDGs with their corporate goals and business strategies. For example, in the pharmaceutical sector, all 10 companies supported SDG3, with Johnson & Johnson stating that they are “committed to dedicating our expertise, ideas, and ingenuity to catalyze efforts toward achieving those SDGs where the Company’s unique constellation of strengths can help create scalable societal impact”.

In the energy sector, SDGs 7 and 13 were supported in some measure by all ten companies in the study. In the automobile industry, all ten companies supported SDG 13, with Volkswagen concluding, “SDG 13 Climate Action was identified as the primary goal, followed by five further goals classified as priorities: SDG 12, SDG 11, SDG 8, SDG 9 and SDG7.”

In the retail sector, SDG 12 received support from all ten companies, as did SDG 8. SDG 12 is linked by some companies to circular economy practices. John Lewis and Partners, for example, note “it is critical we reduce the amount of physical waste our business produces through operations, sales of goods and services, food waste and single-use plastic packaging, in order to prevent further environmental damage, food scarcity, and climate breakdown. We’re facing these challenges head-on, innovating towards a more circular economy.”

The concept of shared value is closely linked to arguments about industry’s contribution to the SDGs. Porter and Kramer defined the concept as “corporate policies and practices that enhance the competitiveness of the company while simultaneously advancing social and economic conditions in the communities in which it sells and operates”, and in many ways, this represents the approach to the SDGs of the companies in the study. 

The varied support for specific SDGs is undoubtedly related to the business community’s conception of sustainability. For example, actions to combat climate change, such as reducing carbon emissions, energy and water consumption, and waste generation, can also help companies reduce costs. Commitments to the SDGs that promote decent work, gender equality and good health and well-being all help to promote stability, security, loyalty and efficiency within the workforce. 

Conclusions

The business community is widely recognized as having a vital role in contributing to the achievement of the SDGs. However, there is still much work to be done, and companies across all sectors face a number of major challenges in making a meaningful and lasting contribution to the SDGs. Addressing these challenges may threaten their current business models and possibly their very existence. It may require a truly cataclysmic global event to trigger collective, rather than individual, self-interest and precipitate widespread corporate engagement with the SDGs.

An alternative view is that the SDGs have given new impetus to the drive for sustainability, and we are now witnessing a recognition that the SDGs represent an opportunity to reduce risk, improve relationships with customers and employees, and spur business growth and innovation. It is to be hoped that this more positive reading of events prevails in the years up to 2030 and beyond.

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Journal reference

Wynn, M. and Jones, P.  (2022) Industry Approaches to the Sustainable Development Goals. International Journal of Environmental Studies, 79 (1), pp. 134-148. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207233.2021.1911101

Martin Wynn is Associate Professor in Information Technology in the School of Business, Computing and Social Sciences at the University of Gloucestershire and holds a PhD from Nottingham Trent University. He was appointed Research Fellow at East London University, and he spent 20 years in industry at Glaxo Pharmaceuticals and HP Bulmer Drinks. His research interests include digitalisation, information systems, sustainability, project management, and urban planning. His latest book, Handbook of Research on Digital Transformation, Industry Use Cases, and the Impact of Disruptive Technologies, was published in 2022.

Peter Jones is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Business at the University of Gloucestershire. He previously served as Dean of the Business School at the University of Plymouth, and as Head of the Department of Retailing and Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has worked as a retail and academic consultant in a range of countries and has active research interests in modern slavery in the service sector, sustainable development in retailing, and corporate social responsibility. He has published his research work in a range of book chapters, academic journals and professional publications.