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Column: Little progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 3/31/2017 2:14:00 PM

GlobeScan, a strategy and insights consultancy well-known for its surveys around the topic of sustainable development, and the equally well-known UK consultancy SustainAbility released in March 2017 a report entitled “Evaluating Progress Towards the Sustainable Development Goals”. The Sustainable Development Goals are the United Nations’ set of 17 global goals it adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 in New York. 

Although the goals were applauded by representatives from all sectors, GlobeScan/SustainAbility found that progress towards implementation has been poor. Non-governmental organizations, social entrepreneurs and the United Nations are seen as doing the most to advance the goals, in contrast to national governments and the private sector. 

The lack of progress by governments is not surprising. Progress by governments on the previous set of United Nations objectives — the Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000 — was also weak. Typically, governments of developed countries do very little until the year of the five-year review approaches, at which time there is a scurry of planning and report writing and a conference at which many great words are spoken. Then most governments forget the whole thing until the next five-year review approaches. 

GlobeScan/SustainAbility findings suggest that the same cycle is going to repeat with the Sustainable Development Goals as happened with the Millennium Development Goals. 

GlobeScan/SustainAbility found that more than half of the corporate experts responding to the global survey reported that their company is doing something towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal targets. Overall, 9% of experts said that corporations are making good progress towards achieving the goals compared to 5% saying the same thing about national governments. 

The fact that the business sector appears to be doing better than national governments suggests that companies might in fact be able to improve their sustainable development performance, and their reputation for sustainable performance, by more closely following the Sustainable Development Goals. 

It is likely that the Sustainable Development Goals will have greater resonance with the public than other more obscure sustainability platforms such as the Global Reporting Initiative and ISO 26000, though these platforms can also be of assistance to companies choosing a sustainability-oriented path. 

Different companies will find a different fit among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals but there is something in the Sustainable Development Goals to which every company, large and small, can commit. No poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, and quality education — the first four goals — are not just for those who have operations in developing countries but also for companies in Canada. 

Canada’s federal government is showing the way on gender equality but there is still great opportunity for the business community, and individual companies, to follow suit. 

Clean water and sanitation are still desperately needed in many parts of Canada. Canada’s generally clean cities are facing imminent failures of infrastructure and the problems of First Nation communities are unfortunately legendary. Globally, the needs for improved drinking water and sanitation are enormous. 

Energy is one area where Canadian business has, intentionally or unintentionally, made contributions in the right direction towards greater efficiency and cleaner usage. However, the fuss over hydro rates in Ontario and pipelines across Canada are just two indicators of how much more needs to be done. 

Business has an important role in education, leadership, and action on all of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

The next five goals provide even greater opportunities for business. Decent work and economic growth, innovation and infrastructure, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, and responsible consumption and production encompass a wide range of objectives where individual companies and business-led organizations can provide real leadership and progress on sustainable development in both local and global spheres. 

The next four goals — climate action, life below water, life on land, and peace, justice and strong institutions — more generally require partnerships among business, government, and civil society, with partnerships being the seventeenth goal. But, even within these goals are objectives in which individual companies can show progress. 

For example, within the life on land goal is the target of ensuring the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services — in particular forests, wetlands, mountains and drylands — in line with obligations under international agreements. There is not one company that could not show leadership in reducing its terrestrial footprint through such initiatives as reducing paper use, encouraging more employees to commute by public transit rather than by personal vehicle, and environmentally-improved landscaping of the sites upon which it operates. 

There will be an official assessment of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals in 2020. The credibility of business with the public, with politicians, and even with critics will be greatly enhanced if a large number of companies can show that they are making significant progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. That is an opportunity for many businesses, including yours, that is too good to miss.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He has been involved in undertaking and reviewing a number of LCA studies. He can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone); (416) 362-5231 (fax); and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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