We’re failing the UN SDGs: Should companies care?

April 24, 2023

The short answer: Yes.

We’re about half the way through the initial 15-year goal for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. That means it’s a good time to check the scoreboard. The verdict: We’re losing the critical climate game that is our collective progress toward the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). The 2022 SDGs report shows that progress is too slow in many areas, if not moving backward.  

But everyone loves a good comeback story, and businesses can play a role in turning the tide, especially now that the boldest U.S. climate bill has cleared the Senate.

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Why do the UN Sustainable Development Goals matter?

Initially developed as a blueprint for policymakers to achieve peace and prosperity for people and the planet, companies across the globe have adopted the SDGs as a framework to guide their ESG software solutions and efforts.

ESG is about identifying risks and opportunities across environmental, social, and governance issues, all widely considered by capital markets to impact the long-term value of a company. The issues the SDGs seek to address mitigate against global instability—wars, famine, climate disasters—which impact businesses’ supply chains, customer segments, and talent pools. So it follows that lack of progress on SDGs isn’t just bad for humanitarian reasons—it’s also bad for business.  

What’s the status of the SDGs?

“The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is in grave jeopardy due to multiple, cascading and intersecting crises. COVID-19, climate change and conflict predominate,” says Liu Zhenmin, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, in the 2022 SDG progress report.

The report highlights several troubling stats:

  • 99% of people in urban areas globally breathe polluted air, based on World Health Organization guidelines.
  • Progress needs to move four times faster than the current rate to meet 2030 targets for drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene.
  • The coronavirus pandemic wiped out over four years of progress toward fighting poverty. The number of people living on less than $1.90 per day increased in 2020, following years of declines. While the number of people living in poverty is forecasted to decline in 2022, it remains higher than pre-pandemic rates.
  • We’re still 40 years away from gender equity in politics at the national parliament level worldwide.
  • The number of refugees globally hit a record high in 2021.

These issues, and the factors affecting progress, are interrelated. The war in Ukraine, for example, creates refugees and affects global food supplies. The war has spurred migration and poverty and caused a global energy crisis. Many G20 nations are forced to consume expensive domestic reserves and activate new fossil fuel suppliers, further slowing a transition to clean energy.  

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on education is expected to cost this generation $17 trillion in lifetime earnings.

What are the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

The UN’s 17 (paraphrased) SDGs are as follows:

1 – Eliminate extreme poverty

2 – End hunger

3 – Ensure good health and well-being for everyone

4 – Ensure quality education for all

5 – Achieve gender equality

6 – Ensure universal access to clean water and sanitation

7 – nsure universal access to affordable, clean energy

8 – Achieve economic growth and decent work for all

9 – Improve infrastructure, industrialization, and innovation

10 – Reduce inequality both within and among countries

11 – Increase the sustainability of cities and communities

12 – Ensure more sustainable consumption and production

13 – Urgently combat climate change

14 – Conserve and restore marine areas

15 – Conserve and restore ecosystems on land

16 – Promote peace and ensure justice for all

17 – Strengthen global partnerships for sustainable development

Learn more.

What does this lack of progress mean for businesses?

The SDGs don’t exist in a vacuum. Lack of progress in one or more areas can have a domino effect on adverse health or economic effects that hurt companies. For example, your business probably doesn’t want to deal with another viral outbreak. But as the progress report notes, biodiversity loss can contribute to further pandemics.  

An article in Nature explains, “while some species are going extinct, those that tend to survive and thrive—rats and bats, for instance—are more likely to host potentially dangerous pathogens that can make the jump to humans.”

Meanwhile, further biodiversity loss affects progress on other global goals, like poverty reduction, as well as gender equality due to traditional roles held in many societies.

Specifically, biodiversity loss “poses a disproportionate burden for women and girls by increasing the time required to obtain necessary resources such as water, fuel wood, and medicinal plants, which reduces the time they can spend on income generating activities and education,” notes Cristiana Pașca Palmer, executive secretary of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, in an article for the International Institute for Environment and Development.  

In short, the cascading impact SDGs can have on climate action, ESG, and green supply chain management performance can’t be ignored.

What can businesses do to align with the SDGs?

Any business, regardless of size or sector, can play a role in incorporating the SDGs into their business.

For example, prioritizing balanced gender representation on your governing board and C-suite supports SDG 5: Gender Equality and can help your bottom line. According to research from Gallup, “gender-diverse business units have better financial outcomes than those dominated by one gender.”

The Hershey Company tracks its alignment with the SDGs and tries to maximize “positive impacts while minimizing or eliminating negative impacts,” the company notes. For example, the chocolate bar brand acknowledges that eating too many of its products goes against SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being. But the company notes that it uses its “position as a founding member of The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative to shift the focus of advertising to children under 12 toward healthier dietary choices and lifestyles.”

Meanwhile, the brand aims to make a positive impact in other ways. For example, keeping employees healthy by expanding mental health benefits and implementing strong COVID-related safety practices (which also align with SDG 3). Hershey’s philanthropic initiatives, like giving to educational programs in the communities it sources its cocoa aligns with SDG 4: Quality Education.  

Other examples of businesses acting with the SDGs in mind include:

Payments company, Adyen

The company’s “Giving” feature enables merchants to accept donations at checkout, while Adyen covers the transaction costs of donations. Merchants can also choose their own charities to work with or use Adyen’s pre-approved list of organizations that support the SDGs. This offering supports SDG 17 and helps build relationships between merchants and charities while allowing customers to give back.  

“We are solidifying our position to facilitate partnerships for the SDGs, and are able to create long-term value for our merchants, their shoppers, and society,” notes Adyen in its annual report.

Printer manufacturer, Lexmark

Printing isn’t typically considered environmentally friendly, but Lexmark is taking steps to offset its impact and do good for the world. The company notes that its corporate social responsibility, includinig CSR partnership efforts, align with four SDGs to varying degrees. For example, for SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, the company has taken steps like installing a rainwater harvesting system at its facility in Lexington, KY.  

”This reduces the need to purchase water and controls excess runoff, preventing erosion and allowing water to naturally enter the groundwater system,” the company says.

Lexmark also focuses on reducing inequalities through its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program.  

The UN states, “Inequality threatens long-term social and economic development, harms poverty reduction and destroys people’s sense of fulfillment and self-worth. This, in turn, can breed crime, disease and environmental degradation.” But Lexmark isn’t paying lip service to DEI. Nearly all employees—94%—say the company’s commitment “is apparent in action, not just words;” 94% would also “recommend Lexmark as an inclusive place to work,” the company notes.

Dating app company, Match Group

Match Group announced in July 2022 that it joined the UN Global Compact, noting it “is committed to help the UN achieve its Sustainable Development Goals to achieve a better future for all.”  

Currently, the company aligns with SDGs like Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, which includes targets like reducing all forms of violence. The company has recently enhanced its safety efforts by adding a technology-driven safety feature called “Are You Sure? (AYS?)” to the Tinder and Plenty of Fish platforms. “It uses artificial intelligence to detect potentially inappropriate language, based on past reporting. In early testing, AYS? meaningfully reduced harmful language in sent messages,” Match Group explains in its annual report.  

The company has also partnered with several nonprofits to reduce sexual violence, among other causes. Through this alignment, Match Group not only helps create a safer world but can draw more users to its platforms who feel comfortable with the safety measures.

Ready to align?

As these examples show, for-profit businesses have plenty of opportunities to strengthen their brands while aligning with the SDGs. Doing so helps the world while leading to business and stakeholder benefits like attracting employees, customers, and investors.

Sustain.Life can tie your actions and sustainability reporting back to the SDGs with the help of ESG VC software. Request a demo to see how your brand can start aligning with the SDGs.

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Jake Safane
Jake Safane is a writer specializing in finance and sustainability. With over a decade of experience, he has written for organizations like The Economist Group, Washington Post, and Business Insider.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
The takeaway

• The 2022 SDGs report shows that progress is too slow in many areas, largely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and war.
• Lack of progress in one or more areas can have a domino effect on adverse health or economic effects that hurt companies.
• Any business, regardless of size or sector, can play a role in incorporating the SDGs into their business.