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Three common "SDG-washing" mistakes

The United Nations’ 17 development goals are a universal approach to protecting the planet, ending poverty, and improving people’s lives. Many organizations use the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide their sustainability strategy and communications, leveraging the goals as an additional framework to demonstrate alignment with corporate initiatives. While originally developed for country adoption, the goals can provide value for corporations looking to enhance their sustainability strategy and set targets and goals. Although intentions are usually good, it’s not uncommon for companies’ messaging to creep into “SDG-washing” territory. 

Similar to “greenwashing,” “SDG-washing” is the term we use to describe misleading communications around framework alignment. With increased scrutiny on—and regulation on the horizon for—sustainability terminology in marketing communications, corporations should consider the risks and opportunities of adopting the SDGs. 

Here are three common SDG mistakes:

Confusing topical alignment with action: Many companies make the mistake of replicating similar or identical verbiage from the 17 high-level to SDGs as a description for their corporate initiatives without actually aligning their action and measurable outcomes. Take for example, Gender Equality (#5), which is “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” Companies mistakenly assume that by simply disclosing their corporate diversity statistics they are aligning to that goal. It’s helpful, but it does not create action to help achieve gender equality. To more closely align with the goal, companies should take an in-depth look into the SDG goals and their targets to determine if your organization’s initiatives align to and advance the SDG’s purpose. In the case of this example, aligning policies and operations to be more inclusive for women would integrate one of the gender equality goal-specific targets. 

Not considering the entire value chain: The SDGs are bold, so when making these commitments companies should be sure to consider your whole value chain, not just what you have operational control over. Potential contradictions within your supplier and consumer communities pose reputational risk. Evaluate the SDG’s impact beyond operational control and corporate data (e.g., gender equality in suppliers’ factories employees or plastic waste for your customers, etc) when communicating specific goals.

Assuming that more is better: It is better to aim for true alignment with fewer goals and demonstrated impact, than to claim generic alignment and superficial impact for many or all of the goals. To align with an SDG, consider how the goal’s targets are relevant to corporate goals, targets, partnerships, and philanthropic initiatives. To demonstrate impact, link your company’s sustainability metrics to the key performance indicators (KPIs) that underpin the goals.

 When done correctly, the potential benefits of SDG alignment include: 

  • Setting yourself apart by connecting your impact with your business strategy. SDG alignment to material topics demonstrates strategic thought and provides context for how corporate resources are supporting SDG-related initiatives.
  • Rigorous disclosure = transparency = trust. Treat SDGs with same disclosure thoroughness as frameworks like the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), especially when it comes to SDG targets. Goals should be clearly connected within the narrative to reporting company’s data, commitments, and targets. When done well, it builds trust with stakeholders.
  • Upleveled communications and reputation. The SDGs provide a clear, internationally recognized sustainability vision that fosters global consumer and stakeholder engagement. Using the goals as a framework to assess and refine corporate sustainability initiatives provides an additional layer of validity. As a reference look refer to these three must-do’s for effective sustainability communications. 

Integrating the Sustainable Development Goals can be a beneficial component of a sustainability communications strategy—but only if done authentically and implemented with consideration to risks. When assessing which sustainability reporting frameworks to align with, it is best practice to consider industry trends, stakeholder influence, and how to leverage disclosure in preparation for future regulation. For more insights on sustainability reporting and communications, check out this interview with Stewart Rassier, Head of ESG Strategy at thinkPARALLAX. 

Three common "SDG-washing" mistakes
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