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Corporate Philanthropy Institute Q&A: Environmental Journalist Discusses Challenges and Opportunities the SDGs Present to Businesses

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for businesses to join with governments and nonprofits to achieve some ambitious global goals by 2030 – things like ending poverty, reducing inequality and combating climate change.

This set of 17 goals creates both responsibilities and opportunities for businesses. At the 2018 Corporate Philanthropy Institute (CPI), coming up Feb. 12 in San Francisco. a panel called “EMBRACING: Sustainable Development Goals” will discuss how companies can start to address those responsibilities and gain from the opportunities. Our The CPI event is co-sponsored with Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Our Q&A features Mary Mazzoni, one of our panelists. Mazzoni is a freelance environmental journalist who reports on the role of business in protecting the environment and fostering equality around the world. Here, she explains how the SDGs came to be, the challenges they present to businesses and the advantages to businesses in addressing them.

SVCF: What are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Mary Mazzoni: The SDGs are a set of 17 goals and 169 targets to address the world’s most pressing social, environmental and economic challenges by 2030. Adopted two years ago by the United Nations, they build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — which ran from 2000 to 2015 and are considered one of the most successful anti-poverty campaigns in history. In addition to nearly halving the number of people living in extreme poverty, the success of the MDGs resulted in greater equity in public education, broader access to sanitation and clean water, and significantly lower infant and maternal mortality rates.

What’s especially interesting is that all of this was realized with little to no engagement from the business community. The primary actors in achieving the MDGs were governments and nonprofits. This time around, the U.N. included a specific call-to-action for business as part of the SDGs. It’s heartening to see more companies answer the call and begin to get involved. 

What benefits would the SDGs bring to the business community?

Achieving this agenda has the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty and increase access to necessities like clean water, energy, sanitation and education. Essentially, it would expand the global economy on a broad scale and empower more people to actively participate — which the Business and Sustainable Development Commission estimates will unlock at least $12 trillion in new market opportunities by 2030.

In addition, companies increasingly want to communicate that they’re doing the right thing in an age when stakeholders care more about sustainable development. We continue to hear about how today’s workforce is looking for companies with values that match their own, and we’re starting to see the same preference from customers and investors. Corporate responsibility and sustainability are key in expressing those values, but it can be difficult for companies to assess how much impact they have at a global scale.

The SDGs set a common roadmap and a common language. Through this agenda, society has mapped out its greatest needs, so rather than guessing how they can best spend their energy, companies now have the answer to that question. With this knowledge, businesses can better leverage their core competencies toward issues they know are important to society.  

What are the challenges for businesses in implementing the SDGs?

The initial challenge is that the SDGs include 17 goals, 169 targets and hundreds more business indicators. This can be overwhelming.