Late last year, the United Nations published the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, or Global Goals). The main difference between the former millennium goals and the new goals is that the latter apply to all countries. It is no longer about goals in poor countries that should be realized through financing from richer countries. The SDGs merge poverty reduction, safety and justice with the familiar cornerstones of sustainable development - People, Planet and Profit.
Serving as guidance both nationally and locally
The 17 Global Goals may seem abstract but they are anything but. They relate to our air, fire, earth and water in very concrete terms. They reference worldwide priorities but also serve as guidance on a national and local level. Here in The Netherlands, for example, we’ve been called upon to work actively to sustainable energy, protection of biodiversity, reduce food wastage, stimulate responsible procurement policy, reduce pollution impact of cities, etc. The SDGs can be read as an election program for a party yet to be founded, with a clearly defined 15-year time frame.
The goals are ambitious, requiring a combined effort of both central as well as local and regional authorities, businesses, NGOs and individuals. Right now, the goals are primarily of interest to the UN, but a worldwide campaign should make them more widely known. Everyone can make a contribution. It will be interesting to see who will show leadership and who will take which role in the realization process. After all, it would be short-sighted for any organization, government or business to refrain from incorporating at least one of these goals into its policies and strategies going forward. Hopefully, a sizable group of active citizens will soon be joining as well.
For me, Goal #12 - responsible consumption and production - is the goal that resonates most. I see changing consumer behaviour as a major challenge that can accelerate sustainable developments. Speaking of challenges, one of the important aspects of Goal #12 is making sure that by 2030, people all over the world have the relevant information and awareness concerning sustainable development and a way of living in harmony with nature. Entire generations need to be informed about the sustainable choices they can (already) make as consumers and citizens. Companies will need to explain where they are in the chain. The effect will be an increasing demand for transparency: what’s in our food, where our clothes come from, where our money is invested and what kind of energy we are using.
Businesses with no eye for sustainability will not succeed
For many industries, external factors will become more and more of an internal reality in the coming years. Financial decisions and investments can no longer be viewed in isolation from the inevitable emerging trend. Investors in businesses that fail to improve the use of raw materials or that have a negative impact on biodiversity will likely see policies and public opinion turn against them and render their old business case invalid. Power companies and investors in “old energy” are already experiencing this. Companies making their core business more sustainable have the future. The argument that the customer is not willing to pay for it is out of date and will have an increasingly false ring to it the coming years.
Most of all, this is a tremendous opportunity for companies. The SDGs provide a shared language, ambition and targets with which companies can communicate consistently and more effectively with their stakeholders regarding their impact and behaviour. In addition to this, it will become easier to find partners with a common purpose. The goals are an important focal point for the near future. They will be used to point public and private investments towards companies that are capable of bringing about innovative solutions and real change. After all, these goals are not just about sustainability; health, equality and safety are equally important. Companies benefit from well-trained employees; an inclusive labour market; healthy, safe, sustainable cities; transparent financial systems and non-corrupt public institutions. You don’t need to go abroad for that - it’s something we experience all around us, every day.
Stragglers run a risk of legal and reputational damage
Dutch policy in this area has by no means been a trailblazer these past few years. Our consultation mentality left too much room for individual interpretation, resulting in low ambitions. The SDGs will help shape the expectations of various stakeholders, serving as a touchstone for future policies on an international, national, regional and local level. Companies and organizations aligning their own policies with the Global Goals will strengthen their involvement with consumers, employees and the local community, and those that don’t will run a mounting risk of legal and reputational damage.
So, how can we transform the Global Goals into Local Goals? Well, by taking them into consideration in our local political decision-making processes and business policies. There is no need for that new political party if the Goals become relevant for all existing political parties. However, the real impact will not become visible until the SDGs are embedded in the business policy of large and small companies around the world and in the choices consumers and citizens are already able to make, as we speak.