The danger of ‘SDG washing’

Despite good words and intentions, corporate and government support for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is falling behind.

  • The flow of capital and tangible action needed to deliver on the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has fallen well below target.
  • The UN estimates that the successful delivery of the SDGs could ultimately add US$12 trillion to the global economy, alongside 380 million new jobs.
  • The latest report from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development reveals that while 84% of member companies referenced specific goals in their sustainability reports, only 15% had aligned their business strategy to specific target-level SDG criteria
  • The money currently raised for SDG delivery goes largely to existing activities or entities, rather than bringing together new entities designed to deal with a specific issue.

Despite the near ubiquitous presence of the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the latest investment and corporate reports, the flow of capital and tangible action needed to deliver on them is behind target, with an estimated US$5 to 7 trillion of annual expenditure needed if pledges are to be fulfilled.

Our view is that the SDGs clearly make enormous economic sense, with the UN estimating that their successful delivery could ultimately add US$12 trillion to the global economy, alongside 380 million new jobs.[1] In a world beset by the challenge of recovering from the Covid-19 crisis, this would represent a much welcome growth opportunity.

Action not words

Increasing enthusiasm for sustainable investment has led to a greater awareness of the role of the SDGs in potentially identifying exciting new areas for growth and mitigating risk, as well as opportunities for corporate engagement. While the SDGs have captured the imagination of many in the investment and corporate worlds, actions have often belied good words.

For us, achieving a sustainable future is as much about minimising harm as it is about delivering solutions. Investors keen to burnish their sustainability credentials have often been too ready to use the SDGs as a convenient label that focuses on existing activities, and only then on positive associations. The same charge can be levelled at companies that rarely get beyond the headline goal in the relevant SDG. A simple test to see if many of these references are simply a case of ‘SDG washing’ is to see if there is any mention of the 169 underlying SDG targets – the granular opportunities backed by research – or the 231 unique key performance indicators used to guide measurement of whether the better outcome has been delivered.

Reporting inconsistencies

The latest report by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development[2] illustrated the inconsistency across the corporate world when reporting on SDGs. While 84% of member companies referenced specific goals in their sustainability reports, only 15% had aligned their business strategy to specific target-level SDG criteria, and only 6% used the key performance indicators for measurement purposes. More concerning was that only 1 to 2% made reference to human rights in relation to the goals. This goes to show the extent to which the SDGs are used as a communicative tool rather than as a broader framework to support capital-allocation decisions.

Cementing public and private sectors

In our view, using the SDGs as a simple mapping exercise renders them no more than a simple relabelling tool, replacing existing index or sector classifications. However, used well, the SDGs can selectively identify the areas of social and environmental deficit that investors and companies can address. The UN is aware that despite the growing adornment in reports making reference to the SDGs, more urgent action is needed over the next decade as we recover from the Covid-19 crisis. Partnership is a key element of the SDGs and, for the first time in living memory, we have an opportunity to cement an alliance between public and private sectors to mobilise capital given that reservations over government intervention in the economy appear to have been swept aside for now.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) set out six policy packages to help address the shortfall in sustainable finance that will only be exacerbated by the pandemic. In a world awash with liquidity, but short of attractively priced risk assets, this represents an opportunity for the financial sector to work in partnership with civil society to find innovative solutions to tackle some of the major issues in the global system.

Avoiding past mistakes

One mistake of the past has been to assume that the launch of a strategy aligned to delivering on the SDGs or ‘impact’ is what is needed to tackle an area of deficit. As we have discovered through the shortfall in funding the goals, the money currently raised goes largely instead to existing activities or entities, without delivering additional funding.

Our view is that a better approach is to acknowledge these global challenges that the SDGs seek to address, to develop solutions to them, and, subsequently, determine how these solutions can be funded. Once that is done, there will be investors – public or private or a combination – who can buy the instruments to support the delivery of the solution to a particular problem. The best impact strategies work on this basis, often in partnership with communities, local government or not-for-profit organisations.

[1] https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/development-agenda/

[2] https://www.wbcsd.org/Programs/Redefining-Value/External-Disclosure/Reporting-matters/Resources/Reporting-matters-2019

 

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