At first glance, the ambitions of a renowned international organization like the United Nations and those of a small business owner may seem worlds apart. However, there’s a multitude of benefits for businesses aiming to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).
Established in 2015 as part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the SDGs aim to create a more sustainable, equitable, and peaceful world. Ideally, by 2030, both the inhabitants of Earth and Earth itself will be in a far healthier, more prosperous position.
So what does that have to do with businesses—namely small and medium-sized ones—that don’t necessarily lobby governments or recruit an international workforce?
For one, achieving the SDGs is an all-hands-on-deck effort. Providing decent work for all, for example, won’t happen if multinational businesses are the only ones creating good jobs—small businesses need to aid in the effort. Plus, all types of companies can benefit from sustainability efforts—not simply for the sake of supporting SDGs, but to reduce utility costs, attract customers, and more.
The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals
To better understand how to impact the UN SDGs, it helps first to understand that the goals span a range of domain areas. Not only does the UN want to increase recycling and decrease food waste, for example, but the organization also wants to improve education, human rights, and equality for all.
Specifically, the UN’s 17 (paraphrased) SDGs include:
- Eliminate extreme poverty
- End hunger
- Ensure good health and well-being for everyone
- Ensure quality education for all
- Achieve gender equality
- Ensure universal access to clean water and sanitation
- Ensure universal access to affordable, clean energy
- Achieve economic growth and decent work for all
- Improve infrastructure, industrialization, and innovation
- Reduce inequality both within and among countries
- Increase the sustainability of cities and communities
- Ensure more sustainable consumption and production
- Urgently combat climate change
- Conserve and restore marine areas
- Conserve and restore ecosystems on land
- Promote peace and ensure justice for all
- Strengthen global partnerships for sustainable development
Even though these goals cover many different areas, they do not exist in silos. Improving education, for example, helps lift more people out of poverty and provides more equal opportunities. Similarly, without tackling climate change, inequality intensifies, to the point where only those with the means will adapt accordingly, leading to more poverty. It’s the butterfly effect played out in real-time.
Ties between business and the UN SDGs
Just as the 17 SDGs have many interlinking parts, the actions and ambitions of small and medium-sized businesses also play a role. Climate change causes coastal flooding and more extreme weather that affect both residents in developing countries and SMBs across the U.S and other developed nations. Not only do businesses face increased risks of, say, having their storefronts or offices destroyed by a hurricane, they could also face supply chain delays if their vendors face extreme weather. And if that feels too far afield, more hot days necessitate more money spent on air conditioning—that’s a budget risk few want to confront.
On the positive side, though, the sustainable development goals set out to improve infrastructure, and in turn, more sustainable cities and communities make for stronger businesses. For example, more public transit can reduce emissions while expanding access to a broader pool of employees. Taking one 30-minute train ride instead of two 40-minute bus rides could be the tipping point for a prospective employee to consider your offer.
How businesses can impact SDGs
Given the links between SDGs and business, it’s essential to know how to take action. You can’t just hope that the world ends up in a better position, or worse, unintentionally impede progress.
Instead, here’s how businesses can make an impact on the UN SDGs:
- Reduce waste
Cutting down on unnecessary consumption is a valuable way to improve environmental sustainability and reduce costs. For example, businesses should be mindful of what needs to be printed vs. what should be viewed digitally to use less paper and ink. Businesses can also reduce their energy use simply using the energy-saver mode on computers.
- Purchase from socially responsible vendors
All the purchases a company makes—office furniture, team lunches, software—should be sourced from socially responsible brands. For example, while it might feel like your business can’t directly impact the SDGs to restore and preserve ecosystems, however, the food and beverages you buy for your office could support sustainable farming and habitat restoration. Your purchases could also tie into areas like eliminating extreme poverty and hunger. Buying things like fair trade coffee provides a better, more equitable life for farmers.
- Promote sustainability initiatives
Letting your employees and customers know about sustainability initiatives helps increase engagement and brand affinity while supporting SDGs. For example, sharing how you’ve reduced your company’s water usage could inspire customers to do the same in their personal lives. The UN SDGs are lofty, so the more people involved, the higher the likelihood we reach the goals.
Even if it seems like an SMB can’t make much of an impact on SDGs, change has to happen now. Grassroots efforts lead to broader change and success snowballs. For instance, sustainable farming can mean higher wages, which could open opportunities for children in developing countries to attend school. Ultimately, the efforts create a deeper global talent pool, benefiting businesses in the long run.
The long-term effects will be transformative—businesses just need to take the first steps to align themselves with the UN SDG.