Why the Sustainable Development Goals matter for business today

In today's episode, you'll learn why Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are important for business and how they can activate and integrate them today. We discuss what are some business challenges to adopting the SDGs, how the Goals align with ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance), and examples of businesses successfully implementing SDGs.

This is part 2 of our 3-part series on the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Part 1: Sustainable Development Goals explained: Are they still achievable?

Part 3: 2030 SDG Agenda - What can we accomplish together

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What we discussed:

Karl Yeh:

Today I've got two special guests. My first guest, who is my cohost is Janelle St. Omer, who is the Regional Vice President here at Benevity, as well as Sue Stephenson, who's a Co-founder of Impact 2030.

Janelle St. Omer:

Thanks Karl. It's great to be here with everybody again, and hello out there to our audience. Sue, it is amazing to have you back with us.

Thank you so much for joining us to talk all about the SDGs today.

Sue Stephenson:

Delighted to be back Janelle and to have the opportunity to specifically talk about [00:01:00] the Sustainable Development Goals or the SDGs or the Global Goals as they're, I think most commonly known, and the role that they play with business. Thank you for the opportunity.

Janelle St. Omer:

Awesome. Well, let's dig right in because you kind of just did a nice segue for us.

Why are the sustainable development goals relevant for business? What's really their impact for companies?

Sue Stephenson:

I think I'd say there's two things.

Why is business important for the sustainable development goals, [00:01:30] but also why the sustainable development goals important specifically to business.

If we think about the first part, that first question though, the role that the private sector plays with the goals as the employer on the planet. 90% of both formal and informal work is connected to the private sector.

You think the impact on communities with that sort of the economic flow, the flow of taxes, the flow of product, the employment [00:02:00] of people, the taxes coming into communities.

The goals could not be achieved if it wasn't for the role that the private sector plays in the economy.

I think for this specifically to your question around why are the goals important for business, it's because they provide the opportunity.

They provide that blueprint to help companies determine what role are they going to play as part of the purpose of operating, what role can they play to help advance the health and safety of the planet on the goals, the 17 goals.

169 targets that sit underneath them are a tremendous, a tremendous blueprint. [00:02:30]

I think, certainly when they were adopted in 2015, I was heading corporate responsibility at the Ritz Carlton.

I remember at the time we looked at these [00:03:00] goals, and as an organization that had employees around the world, 40 different countries, here was a roadmap for our CSR strategy that enabled us to identify issue areas that were core to the business that were applicable, whether we were in China or whether we were in India or whether we were in the United States or Canada.

That is the beauty of these goals.

You can take any of these, whether it's [00:03:30] clean water and sanitation, good health, responsible consumption, life on land.

They are all applicable in the communities where we live and work.

Janelle St. Omer:

I think to that point, I mean, that's really the focus for so many companies to really ensure that the communities where their employees live and where their companies are actually operating are thriving.

Because obviously, if communities are thriving, then companies are thriving.

What would be a reason why a business would not be interested or wanting to have anything to [00:04:00] do with adopting these goals?

Why would a business find it difficult to adopt the SDGs?

Sue Stephenson:

What I've seen is that there is the 17 goals, 169 targets.

The language is written for governments.

If you dig into the goals, targets are written for and the indicators are written for governments.

How do you decide.

A company might say, " Well, we're in tech industry or we're in banking, so what's clean water [00:04:30] and sanitation to do with us".

I think companies, I won't say get confused, but I think sometimes I have seen people get confused, because they'll think we've got to adopt all 17 goals.

In fact what I've seen is, the companies that have been most effective have been the ones that have really dug in deep to analyze the goals and determined how which ones, which targets play a specific role as part of their business strategy, not just [00:05:00] their ESG and CSR and social impact strategies, but as far as the business and how do you then integrate that to ensure that it's part of, it's the broad spectrum of your business strategy.

The employee life cycle, your customers, your supply chain, et cetera, your growth strategy as an organization both economically and geographically.

I think companies have, [00:05:30] rather than trying to retrofit or lay it over and tie a bow around and say, "This is our SDG bow around what we're already doing", they've actually dug in deeply.

There are many, many outstanding examples from not just multinationals who maybe have the funding and the resources to do that type of complex digging in deeply, but small, smaller companies, regional companies. I've seen just tremendous, tremendous [00:06:00] examples.

I think it's for those that haven't, it's probably just feeling that it's overwhelming. In reality, I truly believe that integrating the goals is... It makes life easier because you've got a clearer path.

It also enables that commonality of communication between companies, between sectors, between businesses, because we're all speaking the same type of language.

Yes, I think I might've gone off on a tangent [00:06:30] there Janelle. I'm sorry if I.

Janelle St. Omer

That is okay, but I think you just talked about, you just mentioned one key point that we're all going to be speaking the same language.

To me, the language that we've seen over the last probably I'd say five years that's becoming more and more top of mind is ESG or Environmental, Social, and Governance.

How does the Sustainable Development Goals align to a company's environmental, social, and social and governance (ESG) goals?

Sue Stephenson:

Great question. [00:07:00] I get this question a lot.

The Sustainable Development Goals are the global roadmap that goals apply to countries, communities, or individual citizens.

They're broadly applicable.

ESG is business focused. ESG is the evolution as we've seen from CSR, Social Impact, and now ESG, is [00:07:30] the company's way of focusing in on, it's bringing in what was traditionally sustainability and then you have social impact or CSR and then you've got the governance side, the business ethics, et cetera. It's pulling all of that together.

The goals support that, they work in harmony I think is the way.

I [00:08:00] think the beauty of, discard since you brought up ESG.

I think the exciting evolution there as companies start to talk about ESG, are not siloing sustainability and social impact, is that integration is now finding its way into integrated reporting, where companies, instead of doing the "let's put out our annual report" the important one that goes out to all investors and then we'll have our CSR report on the side completely independent, now seeing [00:08:30] that pulled in to being part of that integrated reporting.

I think secondly, I'm sure most people on the call are familiar with Larry Fink's annual letter that comes out.

The CEO of BlackRock, the man that his organization has the funds of many of the publicly traded companies, sends out a letter annually in January to CEOs to [00:09:00] share his words of wisdom.

It's an eagerly anticipated letter.

He is really pushing the envelope around these issue areas of ESG and the importance of companies focusing in on this social issues, not that are out in the communities, and on sustainability.

The reason that's good, for anybody that's not read one of Larry Fink's letters, you can just Google Larry [00:09:30] Fink CEO letter and put 2021, and you'll get the most current one.

It means that this conversation is happening at the C-suite.

All of this reinforces the importance and what helps the social impact executives and sustainability executives, because the C-suite are recognizing, this is important stuff.

We've got to get this integrated.

This isn't just a nice to do this.

This isn't just something we can bolt onto the side of the way we operate, but this is indeed something [00:10:00] that has to be part of our core purpose and values as an organization.



Janelle St. Omer:

Absolutely. I would actually say that, with everything that we've seen over the last almost two years, CSR as on the whole is really having a moment.

I think with everything that Larry Fink has said and how he's pushed businesses and companies, CSR has kind of been thrust to the forefront, thus look into the limelight.

If you think about the S in ESG, the social piece, that to me is really where [00:10:30] the SDGs align, right?

Because that's a lot of those pieces around social, it has to be activated through employees and all of those things. A lot of that comes into the social piece in the ESG.

I think there's a very clear link that a lot of companies can make and it really helps that their C-suite are thinking about ESG, all core companies are thinking about ESG. It's almost like we're CSR practitioners.

Now is really the time to push the envelope as far as we can to really [00:11:00] help to drive these activities forward.

Sue Stephenson:

Yes, definitely seizing the moment.

I would say I do see that the goals sort of overlay well, but yes, you're absolutely right for the CSR executives, which I'm sure is the majority of the people listening in to the podcast.

Seize the day.

This is, as an old CSR individual, who years [00:11:30] ago, it's exciting to see the profession really be at this point in time. I think we all know collectively that people in this work can move mountains and I think now is our opportunity to step forward.

Karl Yeh:

Sue, how are companies activating around SDG goals? How are they integrating it into their business?

How are companies activating and integrating SDGs into their business?

Sue Stephenson:

Everyone is different, of course, but we see it in many different [00:12:00] ways.

If I speak to the companies that I've collaborated with through Impact 2030, our focus as an organization was on integrating it into human capital strategy for, to ensure that pro bono skills-based hands-on volunteer service.

It was totally integrated with the sustainable development goals.

That was the focus of the organization, but for many of the companies that became part of [00:12:30] Impact 2030 back in 2015, we've been able to watch how they broadly adopted the goals into much more broadly than they have.

There's actually some tremendous, tremendous examples where we're launching a report for Global Goals Week, transforming lives and communities, which really features 19 companies and the work that they have done in that regard.

I think companies are taking different [00:13:00] approaches.

Some are maybe integrating it into their employee engagement, employee volunteering.

Some are adopting it broadly across their CSR or their ESG strategy.

I get very excited when a company publishes their annual report.

I always want to go dive in to see where they're referencing the sustainable development goals.

Companies are, I'm definitely seeing many more examples of that now where they're showing how [00:13:30] their actions are making an impact where they are as a company, trying to move the needle.

I think one of the things that people remember is that there can be the risk of saying at a very superficial level, "Well, we are focused on sustainable development goal number five gender equality, and that's where we're going to focus".

What we are seeing though, companies as they drill down into [00:14:00] the targets, they look at where specifically under that goal are we making, are we focusing our efforts?

For sustainable development goal, for example number five, so I get them correct:

  • Target 5.1 is about ending discrimination against women,
  • 5.2 is about ending violence and exploitation,
  • 5.5 ensuring full participation in leadership,
  • 5B promoting and empowering women through technology.

[00:14:30] By digging underneath the goals is the ability to see where a company by putting its resources, its time, maybe its philanthropic dollars can help move that along.

Then other companies, I mean, have done a tremendous job of aligning their company name, the mission, vision, purpose externally with customers with the goal.

[00:15:00] I've got a couple here:

In their communications externally with their customers, they've got this wraparound message and then are showing the work that they're doing to make an impact.

The [00:15:30] Hilton Hotels launched Travel with Purpose around sustainable development goal 11, which is sustainable cities and communities.

It doesn't matter.

I'm sure there's people listening to this saying, "Gosh, you didn't mention my company's example.".

There are many, many examples of companies that are doing a tremendous job of that alignment and proudly talking of how they, as an organization, are channeling in and focusing in on specific issue areas.

Karl Yeh:

What are the challenges some of these [00:16:00] companies are facing and I guess more so, you talked about how some of the governments like, especially the United States that change in administration, had an impact.

How does those kinds of external factors affect a business's ability to meet some of those or activate under those SDG goals?

How do external factors impact a businesses ability to activate their SDGs programs?

Sue Stephenson:

I think it does come back to sustainable development goal 17 partnerships for the goals.

Without [00:16:30] question national government's commitment to the goals, local government's commitment, community commitment, community education, around the goals, business support, all sort of interplays into the commitment to advancing the goals forward.

I think companies have a lot of focus areas and of course the pandemic has further [00:17:00] expanded where attention is going, but I think if you have got national or local, if it isn't on the radar screen, there is the risk that it will drop off the front burner.

Is that an old fashioned expression? I guess it is, but I'm confident even as we think about the business round table, this is prior to the pandemic.

It was what I believe, 2018, [00:17:30] where the business round table, the U S major companies, came together and the CEOs signed a pledge that they would be focused around purpose, speaking to the issue areas in the sustainable development goals [00:18:00] .

There are issue areas, but I think for companies, if the C-suite is committed, they can make tremendous inroads with the goals and tremendous standing forward being the right side of history as leaders to show the role that they are playing.

We'll see that at the United Nations over the next two weeks, although it's virtual.

We'll see a lot of CEOs that want to be there to be recognized for the work that the companies are doing with the goals.

Yes, but I think more specifically to your question, I think it's about taking a design thinking approach, drill down into how can we integrate the goals [00:18:30] broadly across the business and not just cherry pick goals and say that's superficially what we're doing, because that isn't sustainable.

Janelle St. Omer:

To further to that and you mentioned quite a few companies previously.

For the companies, from this perspective that are doing it really well, what do you think makes their approach unique? Why are they succeeding at it?

Is it because of the endorsement that they have from the top?

Is it from, [00:19:00] to your point, because it's integrated across the business?

Is it because they've really looked at each one of the goals and indicators under each of them and figured out how to apply?

What makes their approach unique and so successful?

What makes businesses succeeding with SDGs unique? Why are they successful?

Sue Stephenson:

I think it is, for those that have been most successful in my belief, in what I'm reading, in discussions with others, is taking it from being a social impact focus to truly being a business focus.

I've referenced a lot of [00:19:30] North American companies.

I'll give a shout out to two that as an example. Iberdrola, which is headquartered out of Madrid, which is an energy company with a large footprint across Latin America and Europe, has done a tremendous job starting back in 2016 of integrating the sustainable development goals into their business strategy and pulling it through the business [00:20:00] so effectively.

They really wanted to mobilize.

They have 35,000 employees around the world, wanted to ensure and really felt that they were a force for good and that they needed to have the employees onboard with this.

They have not missed a beat even through the pandemic.

They have a campaign called SDGs and me.

It's integrated from [00:20:30] when an employee comes onboard through orientation, through communications, through evaluations, through their volunteer service, through their roles within the organization, be them leadership, or as an associate.

The SDGs is integrated into every part.

It's integrated into their communication with their customers in the work that they do as they evaluate their supply chain.

Clearly, it's driven from the top. Their senior leadership have [00:21:00] very much endorsed this, but holistically within the organization, there is just a tremendous focus.

There's many other organizations that I've seen that.

I really believe that it's one, obviously, you have to have that C-suite support and endorsement, but then pulling it through, all the way through the organization.

We all know the power of employee engagement. This is what employees want to see. This is what, not just this [00:21:30] generation, even old folks like me want to see companies that are truly committed to doing the right thing.

They want to be aligned with it. They want to be proud. They want to purchase from organizations that are doing the right things. This ability to be connected to something that is this global roadmap, this global blueprint, directionally is definitely the right direction for companies to go in.

Karl Yeh: Awesome. Sue, if anybody wants to connect with you, what's the best way to do so?

Sue Stephenson: Through LinkedIn. [00:22:00] So Sue Stephenson with a P-H and I will be happy to respond, to look forward to any outreach.

Karl Yeh: This is part two of our three-part discussion on sustainable development goals with Sue Stephenson.

Check out part three here, as we discuss if these goals are actually achievable by 2030 and what companies should be thinking about as it relates to SDGs and their broader corporate social responsibility programs.

Thanks for watching and we'll catch our next episode.

Connect with Sue Stephenson