Three ways to make the SDGs work for your business

The SDGs can be a guiding light in understanding and mapping a commitment to sustainable business. But how do organisations begin their SDG journey?
A clear blue sky. Around the edges of the shot are the leaves of different trees, as though the photo has been taken lying on the ground, looking up at the sky.
Peter Bragg

Written by Peter Bragg

EMEA Sustainability and Government Affairs Director, Canon

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (often just referred to as ‘SDGs’ or ‘Global Goals’), were launched in 2015 to provide a foundation for individuals, companies and governments working towards sustainable change. They were set up by the United Nations General Assembly with an ambitious target of changing the global narrative by 2030 and they target a range of topics – from poverty and inequality to sustainable cities and climate action. These are underpinned by a further 169 targets, the central commitment of which is to Leave No One Behind. It’s a powerful sentiment that clearly recognises the importance of working together in making progress towards sustainable development.
Each SDG is reviewed every four years by an independent group of scientists and the UN Secretary General also presents an annual report on the progress being made. This report is developed in cooperation with the UN System and is based on the global indicator framework and data, produced at both a national and regional level. Unfortunately, the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report was a stark reminder of how far we are from achieving these sustainability goals.
According to the UN press, “at the current rate of investment, it will be impossible to achieve the SDGs by 2030. This is bad for people, bad for society, bad for the environment and bad for business.” We all know that more needs to be done. By including the Global Goals (and sustainability in general) in our day-to-day lives, education systems and – of course – our businesses, we can work towards achieving this milestone together. But how should organisations approach the UN agenda? And how can they adopt the goals? We’re already seeing an influx of rules and regulations, so sustainability is clearly growing in momentum and the SDGs can be a useful tool in understanding and mapping your commitment to specific areas of sustainable development.

"The global nature of the SDGs means that every business can share a common language and unified purpose to work with stakeholders and demonstrate their value in the world.”

1) Build the SDGs into your business strategy
To assess how they can become more sustainable, businesses must first understand the importance of sustainability to their brand – both within their organisation and for the world as a whole. Some will naturally hold more accountability or may want to contribute to one area more than another. The SDGs are an excellent framework that can support you in:

  • coordinating action across a wide range of topics to help drive change
  • decision-making, when making business plans 
  • evaluating of any existing areas of sustainability within the organisation
However, to meet stakeholder demands and drive positive change, businesses will often find themselves juggling different corporate and Environmental, Social and Governance priorities, while also working with stripped back budgets. Of course, this can present challenges.
This is where the SDG Compass can help. It has been developed by the UN Global Compact to assist companies in aligning the SDGs with their strategies and it can help to transform how businesses operate, by unifying efforts across environmental, social and economic topics in a common way. For example, while Canon already has its philosophy of Kyosei – living and working together for the common good – at its heart, incorporating the SDGs into corporate strategy has brought about big benefits.
By adopting the SDGs as a means to coordinate, enact and assess our sustainability progress, we are able to submit yearly sustainability reports to the UN Global Compact, which align our different areas of progress. As you might imagine, we undertake a broad range of activity across responsible manufacturing, supply chains, environmental impact and social value generation. Having the structured and measurable framework of the SDGs gives us tangible outcomes across each area. For example, we keep materials in use for longer, cut out waste, and improve energy efficiency. To date, we have achieved a cumulative 42% reduction in the index of lifecycle CO2 emissions per product since 2008, with a yearly average reduction of 4.6% against a 3% target.

The seventeen United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, laid out in a brightly coloured table form and numbered. Each goal has its own icon.

2) Make coordination and accountability your keywords
Sustainability regulations and agreements vary throughout the world and are increasing in number, so it can understandably be a struggle for large corporations to coordinate a global business, while adhering to local laws. Often the greatest challenge is in seeking a clear and coordinating approach across different markets, particularly when there are also many different business units and dedicated sustainability resources to consider. If the Global Goals are included in all business strategy, they can serve to unite these different areas, while also supporting a culture that recognises the importance of prioritising sustainability.
“We encourage businesses to take a strategic approach to the SDGs and focus their efforts by identifying the areas within the agenda where they have the greatest impacts,” explains Jessica Lobo, Global Goals and Climate Programme Manager at UN Global Compact Network UK. “Companies can then use the ambition of the SDGs to set corporate sustainability targets that will scale up their positive impacts, reduce the negative areas, build resilience and enable long-term growth, and accelerate progress that’s both good for business and good for the world.”  
3) Find strength in numbers
Using the 17 SDGs as a blueprint for development can help businesses to realise that they can’t always go it alone. Thankfully, they also provide a structure that encourages collaboration to achieve direct action. In many cases, a business will look at the Global Goals and choose those that are most relevant to their brand. This might mean a business focuses on areas for improvement when it comes to its production, or it may focus on collaboration if its core purpose is to share information or educate.
For example, Canon focuses on reducing its environmental impact as a major manufacturer but also acknowledges that we must act as a responsible business beyond this. For example, we partner with the UN SDG Action Team, to deliver our Young People Programme. Working with local NGOs (including the Red Cross and Plan International), we aim to empower the next generation by teaching them the visual storytelling skills that will give them a voice on sustainability issues that are important to them.
When using the Sustainable Development Goals as a common framework, driving real change is possible. Businesses, governments and NGOs must come together and ensure they’re continuing to use them as a guide for sustainable actions, both towards 2030 and beyond.
Across EMEA, Canon Europe pursues sustainable business growth, focusing on reducing its own environmental impact and supporting customers to reduce theirs using Canon’s products, solutions and services. Discover more about sustainability at Canon.

Peter Bragg EMEA Sustainability and Government Affairs Director, Canon

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