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Are Companies Succeeding at the SDGs or at “SDG Washing”?
When 193 member states launched the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations in 2015, it was not clear how businesses could contribute to an agenda that covered such wide-ranging topics as eliminating poverty and hunger and promoting peaceful, just, and strong institutions worldwide. Two years later, these fears have proved unfounded as business awareness of and action toward the SDGs is increasing annually. More companies are using the global goals to help set corporate performance targets, and 75% of U.N. Global Compact business participants reported that they are taking action in support of the goals.
This is good news, as the SDGs clearly invite businesses to join the global efforts to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all” alongside governments, civil society, and U.N. entities. Some businesses are already integrating SDG actions into their strategies, operations, and long-term goals in a way that creates value for the business without negatively affecting society and the environment in the process. In a 2017 Harvard Business Review article, Bhaskar Chakravorti of the Fletcher School at Tufts University cited Coca-Cola, Gap, Johnson & Johnson, Mastercard, and Unilever as examples of companies that are integrating selected SDGs into the core of their corporate strategies.
The bad news is that corporate “SDG washing” (positively contributing to some of the SDGs while ignoring the negative impact of others) is a substantial risk that may limit a company’s contributions to the SDGs. A company may develop large-scale renewable energy projects in support of Goal 7 — Affordable and Clean Energy — but displace communities and undermine rights to food, access to water, health, culture, and livelihoods in the process. Or, a business might pitch an extensive infrastructure project as a contribution to Goal 9 — Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure — without changing any aspect of its project planning or business strategy.
Under the guise of supporting the SDGs, tunnel vision (designing and measuring success against a single goal or, even worse, a single target under a goal) and myopia (setting a strategy without understanding the long-term sustainability agenda) may deliver weak or counterproductive contributions to the goals. A company’s support of the SDGs is not necessarily a proxy for doing good.