The SDGs and sustainability standards

Sustainable Development Goals © United Nations
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are quickly becoming a widely accepted framework for governments and businesses to measure their sustainability. But how important are the SDGs for the private sector and how do sustainability standards fit in?

As we start 2016, the SDGs seem to be permeating every discussion on sustainability. Now that the SDG framework is transitioning from the design to the implementation phase, it’s time to examine its relevance to companies and sustainability standards.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The SDGs are a set of 17 goals and 169 targets adopted by all UN member countries in 2015 to tackle major development challenges by 2030. The SDGs are much broader than the preceding Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): covering the three pillars of sustainability, they range from promotion of sustainable agriculture, economic growth and decent work to the sustainable management of terrestrial and marine ecosystems. For a full overview of all goals and targets, see the UN’s SDG overview page.

What are the next steps?

Over the next 15 years, all countries are expected to make progress across all the SDGs. The exact global indicators that will be used have just been endorsed by the UN Statistical Commission and are expected to be formally adopted by the General Assembly later this year. Another series of critical developments will be the ‘national adaptation’ processes that are shifting into gear in each of the 193 signatory countries. While the SDGs are global, each national government is expected to adjust and refine the different targets and indicators, consulting with a broad range of stakeholders in the process.

Private Sector commitment

Like the MDGs, the SDGs are about measuring and stimulating the performance of governments at a national level. However, unlike its predecessor, the SDG framework also strongly emphasises the indispensable role of the private sector in achieving its ambitious agenda.

Research by PwC confirms SDG awareness amongst the business community is high (92%) compared to the general population (33%). And, according to GlobeScan’s State of Sustainable Business survey, around one in three companies indicated that they would use the SDGs to set corporate targets.

Several business-led SDG initiatives are also emerging. At the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, a partnership of business leaders led by Unilever’s Paul Polman joined forces to set up a Global Commission on Business and Sustainable Development to ‘articulate and quantify the compelling economic case for businesses to engage in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals’. The UN Global Compact is providing a learning platform and resources for the private sector to take on SDG implementation, and a number of other companies are taking action individually.  

All of these developments indicate a significant momentum within the private sector to connect new and existing efforts to the current global sustainability agenda.  

The role of sustainability standards in implementing the SDGs

Multi-stakeholder sustainability standards are established across many economic sectors which are critical for progress on global development, in particular agriculture. Moreover, they have the support of a range of key stakeholders, including business and industry, governments, international organisations, civil society and the general public. Credible and mission-driven sustainability standards systems are therefore well-placed to become tools for SDG implementation by companies and other supply chain actors. By providing a transparent and verifiable method to assess whether or not a certain level of performance on sustainability is reached, standard and certification systems can serve as a measure of progress against the SDGs.

The inter-governmental agenda for financing the SDGs – Addis Ababa Action Agenda or AAAA – emphasises the role of private sector investment, global value chains and international trade as key drivers for meeting the SDGs. The UN Global Compact is providing more concrete guidance for individual companies and proposes the use of sustainability standards and certification as a key tool in several of their ‘Industry Matrices’.

Given the overarching focus of the SDG agenda on people and the planet, it is clear that sustainability standards can play a fundamental role in its implementation.