UN Sustainable Development Goals – Rather than Corporate Opportunity Are SDGs Used for Greenwashing?

2016–2019 Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS), Canada, Toronto

 

When the Centre for Sustainability and Excellence (CSE) began its research into Sustainability Reporting in North America, we knew we’d get important insights on how companies approach reporting, what they include, perhaps most importantly, what they omit.

Of the North America companies under review in the 2015-2016 sustainability reporting period, only 6.2% integrated SDGs (UN Sustainable Development Goals) in their reporting, and only 6% integrated all 17 SDGs.  Most incorporated some, and 21% just mentioned them, stating they were under review.

Fast forward a year, and we are finding that in many sectors, the use of SDGs in reporting and strategy has increased dramatically.  Over 13% of companies which provide sustainability reports in telecommunications include the SDGs; 12.2% in the chemicals sector; 10.4% in retail.

WHY are companies ramping up use of the SDGs?

Some argue is it purely greenwashing.  How could key multinational corporations have addressed ALL the SDGs mere months after they were presented to the world?  Maybe those companies merely took existing programs and imposed them on the SDG framework.

How could reporting of SDGs double in some sectors in just over a year?  Again, might they be cherry picking SDGs to match what they are already doing?

And, what of the arguments that the SDGs are too focused on development, an excuse for and justification of continued unsustainable corporate growth?  Need a company only claim to follow a few SDGs to otherwise operate unfettered?  If a beverage company adheres closely to clean water targets (#6), does it get a pass on good health and well-being (#3)?

There is no perfect corporation, no perfect solution to poverty (#1), peace and justice (#16) or any of the other SDGs.  Yes, there may be some contradictions in the targets – how does one simultaneously “develop” and “protect”?

Yet, the SDGs offer GOALS, targets, and ambitions.  They refine complex concerns to easily understandable concepts.  They demonstrate interrelationships, emphasize the need for collaboration and unite nations in common action for the greater good.

As for greenwashing, SDGs provide a framework within which corporations can state efforts, measure progress and strive for more.  Once a company claims progress on an SDG, it opens itself to scrutiny.  If a company says it is committed to protecting life on land (#15), its actions are then viewed through this lens.  SDG language, perhaps started as greenwashing, becomes a promise by which stakeholders can judge a company’s actions.

Have SDGs never been and never will be used for greenwashing?  Of course not.   Whether on purpose, poor planning, or oversight, the less vigilant can fail to meet their promises.

That is why CSE holds trainings in strategic locations.  Next is in Houston, Texas, Sept. 27-28, 2018.  The Energy sector accounts for 13% of sustainability reporting in the US, followed by Financial Services – both critical to the regional economy.  These sectors will be expected to report at minimum on progress toward clean energy (#7), decent work and economic growth (#8), industry, innovation, and infrastructure (#9), and climate change (#13).

What the SDGs provide is a checklist by which companies can be held accountable. The sooner companies can manifest them throughout their corporate culture, the better for all of us.

By Nikos Avlonas

Originally posted to CSRWire June 4, 2018

 

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