Two years on from the launch of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), our new research suggests that action by companies could be stalling.
When we first started surveying companies in August 2015 – just weeks before the Goals launched – around a quarter of respondents told us that they had no plans to do anything about them. Last year (2016) that figure fell to just 13%, as preparations grew with serious momentum following their unveiling.
Now, our latest study shows some worrying signs: the “no plans to do anything” group has crept back up to one in five (20%). The proportion saying that they are “actively involved in a collaboration related to the SDGs” has also fallen from 40% in 2016 to 33% in 2017. And the number of respondents telling us that in future years they want to use the SDGs to “review or set new targets” and “inform strategy development” is also in decline.
So the big question is: why are we seeing the drop? Have the SDGs just become “boring” for corporates – all whizzy and exciting in 2015/16, and a bit “old hat” now?
I think the answer is a bit more complex. What we saw in the first year or so was a large number of companies responding to the call for action. Our new study explores the detail and analysed company responses for the first time. We found that two thirds of the largest UK companies have welcomed the SDGs. The figures for the US (38%) and Singapore (20%) are somewhat lower. This typically has taken the form of sustainability reports aligned with, or mentioning, the Goals.
But it’s much harder to take the next step. Having welcomed the goals and aligned reporting, what does the company actually do?
One option is to review strategies and develop new initiatives internally, such as products and services or employee volunteering programmes. Just 13% of the largest UK companies we analysed (10% in the US) have publicly disclosed any such activity.
Another option is to take action externally, and partner with others to create change. A third of respondents to our survey (which took in organisations from 42 countries) said they were currently involved in a collaboration on the SDGs. The figures we found through analysing reports were even lower: 14% in the UK; 12% in the US; and 8% in Singapore have new external initiatives.
So the gap seems to be from warm words to tangible actions. Welcoming and reporting is relatively easy. Strategic alignment, changing policies, reviewing commitments, innovating for new markets and doing things differently is much harder.
For those of us that want to see more businesses step up and play a role, these statistics are sobering. Our report contains more details on the tools that companies can use to move from intent to action. I hope that over the remaining 12 years that the Goals have to run, many more companies can tease out the business opportunities to ensure that sustainable development is more than just warm words.
Richard Hardyment is Director of Research at Corporate Citizenship.