How should business approach embedding the SDGs into their core business?

The SDGs provide a framework for a global society to coordinate on finding a path to improving the human and planetary condition. A key point of departure in the case of the SDGs is that this coordination is no longer the exclusive domain of the heads of state or international agencies or development organizations, as it has been in the past. The private sector in all its forms—big business, the garage entrepreneur, the young person on the street armed with a mobile phone, the investor—has a seat at the SDG table to join in the problem solving.


With 17 goals and 169 targets, the SDGs are far from being manager-friendly; approaching the goals as a whole runs the risk of reducing the SDG agenda to an exercise. In order to make these goals more actionable, perhaps it is better to first view them as a logical system; for example, with some goals as endgames, others as essential building blocks, and yet others as enablers. Each company’s management must create its own pathway through the SDGs – where do you propose they begin?


1. Should a business start with the SDGs and look for opportunity, or start with existing business and sustainability strategies and build from there?


2. At a practical level, what do the SDGs add to existing business sustainability strategies?  What should companies be doing differently as a result of the SDGs?


3. What tools do businesses need to facilitate deeper engagement with the SDGs? How should business report its contributions to the SDGs to meet the expectations of government and civil society stakeholders?


This discussion is part of a Challenge on embedding the SDGs into business with the UK’s Department for International Development, Pearson, De Beers and Cemex. This online discussion will inform the development of a guide for business managers. It will also feed into the Fletcher School's Annual Inclusion Forum (Inclusive Inc) happening in Boston later on Wednesday.


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Welcome to this written discussion on how businesses should approach embedding the SDGs into their core business.  This discussion ties into a Challenge we are running, as well as the Inclusion Inc Unconference taking place today.  We invite you all to post your questions and comments over the next hour, during the conference and over the coming days.

Let me start by asking all our panelists to introduce themselves.

Hello - It's Richard Gilbert, Challenge Director at Business Fights Poverty.  I am leading some our work on the SDGs.

Julie Wallace, Global Head, Community Engagement, Standard Chartered.

Hi, I’m Hui Wen Chan, Vice President of Corporate Sustainability at Citi.  Citi’s mission is to enable progress for our customers and communities by financing global growth and developing financial products and services that meet their needs.  Financing underpins all of the SDGs and Citi is committed to mobilizing capital for development.

Hi - Matt Gitsham, Director of the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability at Hult International Business School. We're partnering with Business Fights Poverty leading research on the challenge on embedding the SDGs into core business.

Greetings from The Fletcher School and welcome to this conversation, with Business Fights Poverty, on how businesses can approach SDGs. We look forward to a lively discussion -- Bhaskar Chakravorti and Ravi Chaturvedi

Thanks so much for making time to join us today!

Let's kick off with the first question:

Q1. Should a business start with the SDGs and look for opportunity, or start with existing business and sustainability strategies and build from there?

Hello, this is Bhaskar Chakravorti, Senior Associate Dean at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. I head our Institute for Business in the Global Context, whose tagline is "connecting the world of business with the world"; I am also directing our research and convening initiative on how business innovators can help make advances on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. We are launching a major research report today, "The Inclusive Innovators: 10 Questions, 20 Business Leaders, 17 Sustainable Development Goals" at an "unConference" this afternoon in Boston. Watch for the link to the report that we shall be releasing shortly. We look forward to a global community to collaborate on contributing and problem solving on this urgent and important set of issues. The US elections, the Brexit vote, among other developments of 2016, send a very clear signal: governments will be scaling back on their commitments to international cooperation, sustainable development and global inclusion. Other sectors will need to step up and fill the void. The role of business and social innovators is going to be even more important than we could have ever imagined. Look forward to your ideas. Best wishes, Bhaskar

The SDGs are broad enough that every company will be able to find ways their work supports the SDGs.  To be most effective, companies should start by reflecting on their existing business and sustainability strategies, considering the areas where they can have the greatest impact, then looking at the SDGs for the strongest points of alignment as well as for new potential opportunities and ideas.

In our experience of talking to companies about their approach to the SDGs at a global level, most use their strategic priorities and core business capabilities as a starting point and through a process of analysing and mapping the SDGs against existing sustainability strategies, they can then prioritise SDGs which are most material to the business and they have the greatest potential to impact.   First and foremost, business investment, operations and value chains are the most powerful levers at a company’s disposal to drive priority SDGs.

When it comes to translating global priorities at the country level, businesses need to take a more nuanced approach and take into account local needs on the ground and government priorities. 

At Standard Chartered, we took a combined approach. Our global footprint combined with our support to a number of industries from infrastructure to education puts us in a unique position where we can add value across a number of the SDGs. We reviewed our business strategy and priorities and then mapped these against the SDGs to see where we could add the most value based upon our expertise and areas of business focus.

What I've seen companies doing so far in their engagement with the SDGs is to start by mapping the 17 SDGs and the 169 targets against their existing sustainability priorities and activity areas, to find out where they are already making their most significant contributions to the goals. They are then exploring whether there are major SDG areas where potentially their business could (but isn't yet) make a significant contribution through their core business and/or through a partnership with others.

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