Responsible businesses have the potential to take us to a sustainable future. The Sustainable Development Goals are the map to guide us there.
In August I was lucky enough to take part in the first ever UNLEASH Innovation Lab in Denmark. It was a nine day course for 1000 young professionals, researchers and entrepreneurs to develop innovative business cases with the aim of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Businesses hold the power to make them happen and, whether we realise it or not, our everyday work is closely aligned with making our world a better place.
What are the SDGs?
Most people can agree that ‘sustainability’ is a good thing for us to work towards, but it can be a difficult term to define. It covers broad topics and means different things to different people. ‘People, Planet, Profit’ is a good start as it keeps the scope wide (and alliteration helps), but we need more detail than that.
The SDGs are a list of 17 global development goals to be achieved by 2030
That’s where the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) come in. Established in 2015, they are 17 goals that set a global agenda to 'end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all'. They finally give us a comprehensive, global definition of what sustainable development looks like, and a checklist of targets for us all to work towards for 2030. And you’ll notice they’re broad - sustainability isn’t just solar panels and electric cars; it’s gender equality, clean water and sanitation, quality education and much more.
Two years since they came into being, and with 13 years until the deadline, the SDGs are proving to be a simple way for organisations to set sustainability goals, monitor progress and communicate that with the public.
How does UNLEASH contribute?
The UNLEASH programme sought to forge paths towards achieving the SDGs by focussing on a message growing in volume globally - sustainable development is no longer just the realm of government and aid, but it’s businesses that truly hold the power to make a difference. Yes, the businesses we love to blame for many of the world’s problems can actually transform themselves into self-fuelling engines to drive positive change.
Over the ten day UNLEASH course in Denmark we worked in teams to develop cases for initiatives that would make a positive impact on global issues, while still being viable businesses. Rather than leaving it to the government or NGOs to do the right thing, they’d be able to do it themselves while standing on their own feet, making a lasting, sustainable impact. The demand from both shareholders and the public for companies to do the ‘right thing’ has grown in recent years, to the point that it now makes good business sense to do so.
Winning ideas from UNLEASH included a reusable shipping pallet wrap and a service using drones and machine learning to analyse buildings for material reuse after deconstruction. Both examples have massive potential to reduce material waste and contribute to several SDGs, but their true beauty lies in the fact that there is a clear financial opportunity or saving in the product/service in both cases. The initiatives can succeed as mainstream businesses while making positive change. And that’s just where UNLEASH plans to take them, quickly, through follow-up business accelerator courses, mentoring and funding.
What can we learn from the rest of the world?
The beauty of the SDGs is that we’re all in this together. Sure, some companies want to keep their cards close to their chests to maintain a competitive edge, but generally people are willing to share successes for the greater good. Visiting Denmark and meeting people from all around the world reminded me how important it is to borrow and share insights, case studies, successes and failures as widely as possible so that we’re all working with the most up-to-date information.
It’s well known that the Scandinavian countries are world leaders in sustainability, and it was great to see this first-hand in Denmark with amazing public transport, bike lanes everywhere and supermarkets full of organic products. But it’s easy for other countries to put this solely down to the economic wealth of Scandinavia, and take a “we’ll fix poverty and the environment once we’ve got our economy sorted” approach. Instead, the SDGs need to be integrated into the development journey to really be effective. Less prosperous countries are leading by example - I was impressed to learn that India had become the first country in the world to mandate that large companies spend at least two percent of their profits every year on corporate social responsibility. Sharing ideas globally is crucial to achieving the SDGs, and there are great ideas to be found in all corners of the world.
Many companies struggle to set simple sustainability goals, or effectively communicate their current contribution - but the SDGs are a simple, powerful tool for doing this. At UNLEASH I was impressed to hear leaders from Danish companies such as Grundfos (water pump manufacturer), Vestas (wind turbine manufacturer) and Bestseller (clothing conglomerate) talk passionately about how their businesses contribute to particular SDGs. No company can tackle all 17 SDGs, but identifying one or two to focus on is a great move (as long as they can be met without sacrificing others!).
How can we bring the SDGs into our lifestyles and work?
The SDGs are a powerful reminder of how broad the concept of “contributing to society” is. We can’t all design wind turbines and solar panels, but there are many other ways we can play our part. We can make use of the SDGs as a shortlist of 17 “areas for improvement” we can contribute to through our lifestyle and career choices.
I’m working on a major wastewater treatment upgrade project in New Zealand. As a mechanical engineer I often get caught up in the details of the pipelines, pumps and valves on the project and sometimes lose sight of the big picture, but the SDGs remind me of what’s important. The upgrades will cater for an extra 250,000 people and further protect the nearby harbour, thus directly contributing to SDGs 6 (clean water and sanitation) and 14 (life below water), as well as others indirectly. With constant technological development and the looming issues of population growth and climate change, wastewater is an exciting and fulfilling industry to be involved in.
We’ve long since woken up to the fact that businesses need to think about more than just profit, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. Now the SDGs have proven themselves as a useful tool for companies to explore their purpose, set sustainability targets, track progress towards them and communicate that clearly to the public. I’d encourage you to take a moment to look at the list of SDGs and reflect on how your work and lifestyle contributes to them - you may be pleasantly surprised, or you may get some fresh inspiration.
Matt is a Mechanical Engineer in our Industrial Section, with particular experience in the Wastewater industry. He is passionate about sustainability and coordinates a network of Green Teams across Beca’s various offices. He’s also a contentedly average runner, rock climber, skier, tramper, musician and photographer.