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How the SDGs add value for sustainability strategies

Sustainability By Katarina Persson, Sustainability Consultant – 29 March 2023

Infographics of the 17 UN SDGs


Headshot of Katarina outdoors, in front of greenery.

Katarina Persson

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So often in discussions about sustainability, there tends to be a focus on specific metrics that exist in isolation to the wider fabric of the global community and the planetary environment. But when we look through the lens of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is obvious that any action or activity has an influence beyond the site boundary or company balance sheet.

For example, much of our work with clients sits within SDG 11 - making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. But what happens within the context of SDG 11 also touches multiple other goals such as SDG 3, promote healthy lives and ensure wellbeing for all people of all ages; SDG 7, affordable and clean energy; SDG 8, sustainable and inclusive economic growth and decent work for all; SDG 9, infrastructure, innovation and industry, and so forth.

There are 17 SDGs in total that if achieved will address most of the world’s major issues across environmental, social and governance (ESG) indicators.

Fortunately, many businesses and communities are already on their way towards achieving one if not more of the SDGs, even if that is not explicitly obvious. So, that is where we often start in our process of establishing ESG benchmarks, targets and strategies for improvement. We do the research to understand which SDGs are already being connected with, so we can highlight those existing positive directions.

The process is then to ensure all the SDGs are embedded at the core of everything, rather than perceived as an add-on.

From the client perspective this means being open to understanding the SDGs and seeing the potential their decisions have to contribute to the greater global good. In this way, the goals are quite empowering as they draw clear links between private actions and global priorities. This perspective also demonstrates that private profit need not be incompatible with social benefit, and in fact the two can and must co-exist.

In the big picture, to achieve the goals across the entire economy, I believe there may need to be increased public education and communication. This may not be as hard as it might appear at first glance.

During the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic, people became quite obsessed with data and reporting. Tracking the case numbers and level of hospitalisation, new variant names and hot spot locations was casual conversation and dominated social media channels. The awareness of data and how to interpret it rose exponentially, and this same understanding can be applied to considering how we, as a society and an economy, are tracking in relation to the SDGs.

Imagine if the unemployment rate or wages growth was benchmarked against SDG 8? Or the amount of renewable energy generated in a month and the energy market spot price trends was benchmarked against SDG 7? Suddenly, we don’t have numbers without context, we have numbers that indicate progress towards an achievable goal. Being able to see the gaps in relation to a target also means having the capability to think in terms of specific measures that will bring us closer to the necessary outcome.

This is very similar to how we approach a specific element of a strategy such as emissions reduction and achieving carbon neutrality. By analysing the current sources of emissions and their quantity, we can enact specific science-based measures for reducing them and calculate the quantity of residual emissions that need offsetting.

So, for a major social crisis like the rising numbers of homeless persons in Australia, we could communicate how many people currently lack appropriate, safe and affordable shelter as a percentage of the population and within the context of SDG 11. That percentage represents a failure to achieve the minimum standard of development – and it also represents an opportunity to address that deficit and live up to our designation as a ‘developed nation’.

Or if we consider SDG 3, good health and wellbeing for all, this can be addressed not only through the infrastructure approach of hospitals and policy, but also through enacting strategies such as enhancing access to digitally-delivered preventative health. It is also addressed through measures such as masterplanning for green space and active mobility, ensuring homes have adequate levels of passive thermal comfort and ventilation and through addressing root causes such as structural inequality and prejudice.

Above all, we need to beware of negative messaging and click-bait approaches, but instead elevate the benefits that flow to the wider society of attaining all 17 global goals. We should be celebrating them as success stories, not seeing them as onerous obligations. This can also have the benefit of helping us think more holistically and proactively about how to achieve them.