The benefits of including UN’s Sustainable Development Goals into your sustainability communications

In 2015, the United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to serve as a roadmap for nations and businesses alike to strive toward solving the world’s greatest challenges by 2030. There are 17 goals ranging from ending hunger to ensuring access to high-quality education, from protecting natural resources to providing quality education. Using the SDGs as a guide, organizations can focus their efforts on innovation, partnerships, and business strategy for sustainable growth and positive impact.

The business case for creating alignment is clear. As ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) investing continues to grow, institutional investors will be looking for sustainably led organizations. Employees also want to work for an organization that is purpose-driven. Since SDGs are applicable for any organization, they provide the bridge between companies, NGO’s, local and national governments to solve social and environmental issues and serve as the conduit for collaboration. Plus, a 2017 Better Business, Better World report by the World Economic Forum, predicts that through achieving the global goals, there will be an economic prize of $12 trillion by 2030.

Aligning the SDGs with your company’s sustainability strategy and communications is a relatively new undertaking for most organizations. A KPMG study reported that a mere four out of ten of the world’s largest firms referenced SDGs in their corporate reporting. With 85% of SAP 500 reporting their impact, the SDGs can serve as a common global framework helping to identify impacts companies haven’t thought about and assess negative impacts along the value chain. While this proves there is significant buy-in, still more than 50% need to incorporate it into their business strategy, planning, and communication. The goals serve as both a practical framework and inspiration for companies serving as a catalyst for strategic change.

Here are some examples of how companies are aligning with the SDGs as part of their strategy:

Manpower leads with “We believe meaningful and sustainable employment has the power to change the world” which connects to their sustainability strategy, local and global (SDG’s) impact. They’ve clearly connected the SDGs throughout their strategy by aligning their sustainability pillars with applicable goals.

Danone’s mission is to Bring Health Through Food to as Many People as Possible,  they logically focused their efforts on four SDGs related to their business: Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well being, Clean Water and Sanitation.

Global communications group Vodafone produces both a sustainability report and a SDG standalone section of the communications that focuses on five main goals (Education, Gender Equality, Economic Growth, Innovation, and Climate Action). Using their networks, products, and services and through the Vodafone Foundation, the strategy focuses on goals where the business believes it can have the greatest impact.

Both of these companies have focused on SDGs that are material to the business, creating credibility for potential partnerships with NGOs or other organizations. We’ve seen a trend to “over commit,” where companies choose too many SDGs to align with as seen here with L’oréal committing to 14. On the other end of the spectrum, Salesforce clearly states “We do care and take action for all 17 Global Goals, but we focus our energy on education and workforce development.” Your organization might be touching on all 17, but there is most likely a handful that are material to how the business operates. Focus on those for the greatest impact.

The impacts can be felt locally but the beauty of aligning with the SDGs is that it gives legs to your sustainability program and connects you with something bigger than your organization. The SDGs make it easier for companies to link their contributions to global, regional, and national initiatives, and communicate with peers and stakeholders in a meaningful way. This will educate all of the stakeholders of your vision to be part of a collective movement and that the purchase they are making, or the employer they are working for, is focused on bigger aspirations for global impact.

Once you’ve chosen a path, where possible, embed the SDGs and surrounding language into your general sustainability messaging and communications. An easy introduction would be to first incorporate into your sustainability report as seen here in International Paper’s report as well as their social media communication. AT&T posted a blog article to introduce the SDG’s and how the company is beginning to incorporate them into their strategy. San Diego-based telecommunications company Qualcomm references the SDGs they align with where possible – in all media releases and content related to their global social impact program, Wireless Reach. They also produced a film, Power of 9, focused directly on the role of technology in achieving SDG 9. Another common trend is to incorporate the SDG icons and visuals wherever possible, and the UN conveniently provides all the visual assets you need.

As you integrate the SDGs into your communications, there will be a learning curve for your audience to understand the connection, but by doing so you’ll be positioning your organization as an early adopter of a global movement. Once it becomes part of the communication, it can be incorporated for all audiences. Internally with CEO presentations and town hall meetings, for NGO’s at partnership events and externally where possible for communities and customers. Through your communications, new partnerships and relationships will emerge and earned media will be an outcome. Your adoption will get buy in through organizations and stakeholders that weren’t yet on your radar – and you’ll be positioning yourself with the business community who are part of the global movement.