UK business is failing to step up to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

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By Professor Ian Thomson
Director of Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business

In September 2015, after the largest public consultation in history, all 193 Member States of the United Nations adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These ambitious targets aim to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and protect our planet by 2030 – and the UN invited businesses worldwide to help.

But five years later, many UK businesses are failing to step up to the challenge. Too many big firms are superficially using the SDGs to rebrand their existing and inadequate corporate social responsibility programmes, rather than seriously rethinking how they can help prevent the many social and environmental crises facing the world. (Our research has identified a disconnect between corporate risk statements, materiality assessments and their SDG disclosures.)

While the Government’s Voluntary National Review of the SDGs in 2019 also found that the vast majority of the UK’s 5.7 million small and medium-sized companies – which make up 99% of all UK businesses – had failed to get on board with the SDGs at all.

We have worked with Business in the Community on their SDG-based Responsible Business Tracker, which is used by 94 UK large and medium-sized companies across 24 sectors, including Sky TV and Boots. But even many of these most engaged firms aren’t changing how they operate fast enough. According to the tracker’s latest report:

  • Only 43% mapped their business strategies against the SDGs.
  • 33% admitted having limited knowledge of the SDGs.
  • 50% hadn’t reduced their greenhouse gas emissions, and only 21% had committed to going ‘net zero’.
  • 77% recognised the importance of maintaining a healthy ecosystem to their business, but only 18% had set targets to monitor their strategies for doing this.

This discouraging picture of the UK’s business community reflects a failure of imagination to see a better way of doing things and the potential value in creating the more sustainable world that the SDGs ultimately represents. But thankfully business leaders’ instincts are gradually starting to change and the UN’s aspirational targets are being translated into everyday business decision-making. The coronavirus pandemic has widened the focus from just preventing climate change to the importance of communities, too.

But in order to accelerate this change, there are four things that every business can do using tools like the Responsible Business Tracker:

  1. Map their purpose against the SDGs to explore the alignment between what they’re doing, plan to do and want to do.
  2. Identify the relationship between elements of their business model and the SDGs, in particular those SDGs they depend upon, negatively impact or contribute positively to.
  3. Use the SDGs to map risks to their business model in order to future-proof what they do.
  4. Evaluate their business scorecards or KPIs in relation to the SDGs to identify knowledge gaps and critical areas of ignorance in how they measure performance and reward staff.

Here at the Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business, we’re developing new research and practical tools that provide a bridge between the urgent aspirations of the UN’s SDGs and the needs of businesses wanting to understand and apply them on the ground. Most recently, we’ve been working with London-based technology firm World Wide Generation to develop their G17Eco tracker and other accountancy tools that will help companies link their reporting more easily to the SDGs.

With projects like these and the collective efforts of everyone inspired by the UN’s vision of a more sustainable world, which is being promoted during Global Goals Week, I hope the progress made by UK business on the SDGs in another five years will be much more encouraging.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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