Why Companies Need to Ditch the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Many companies are committed to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but what is the value of the SDGs in business? While the SDGs have been considered as a North Star and a strategic tool helping companies pursue a meaningful sustainability agenda, in reality, it seems like they fail to do so. Therefore, it is time to reconsider if and what role the SDGs should have in business.

Original image: United Nations

SDGs as a North Star

The 17 SDGs are at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by the U.N. in 2015. The SDGs and 169 targets they include were meant to lead an ambitious global agenda around the three dimensions of sustainable development: environmental, social, and economic. A useful metaphor would be to consider the SDGs as North Star — as van den Broek and Klingler-Vidra suggested in their study of the SDGs: “The SDGs serve as a guiding “North Star,” rather than a specific blueprint.” One of their interviewees, an executive director at EY further articulated this idea as follows: “The SDGs give you a great North Star. They are so comprehensive about what a better world looks like, that companies can say where they want to focus. It gives a sense of targets and ways to measure it. Then we help the company articulate its unique capabilities.”

Credit: United Nations

SDGs as a Strategic tool

Credit: United Nations

So what do we do about the use of SDGs in business?

Oxfam’s Mhlanga et al. suggest that “for SDG engagement to be more than window dressing, companies need to integrate SDG engagement into their core business and sustainability practices.” Kramer et al. also have some practical advice for companies that want to be serious about the SDGs: Choose fewer and more specific goals, focus on the most promising business opportunities, adopt meaningful near-term targets, reallocate resources, etc. Other researchers have similar recommendations in hope that SDGs can drive or at least support a more ambitious sustainability agenda in business.

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Raz Godelnik

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach