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SDGs: Where are all the companies?

9. Mar 2016

The launch of the Global Goals last September marked a watershed moment for corporate sustainability. For the first time we now have a clear, global standard - and unequivocal targets - that paint a picture of what needs to be done to make life on this planet sustainable. For companies, these Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are set to become the new, de-facto standard for designing, measuring and accounting for business’s impacts on society.

So how have businesses responded? If truth be told, it’s been a slow start.

We undertook research in August 2015, shortly before the Goals were launched. In a survey of CSR and sustainability practitioners working in large companies around the world, we found that:

  • Nearly a quarter said that whilst they were aware of the SDGs, they had no current plans to do anything about them,
  • A further 4 in 10 said they were currently exploring the implications - but not yet taking any action,
  • Just one in five said their company was currently involved in a collaboration on the SDGs, and
  • 16% said their organisation was not currently aware of the goals.

Now that was before the launch. Since then, we’ve detected a growing awareness of the goals from the companies that we work with. Some, like Unilever, have launched collaborations to tackle specific areas. Other multinationals like GSK, Mastercard, Dow, Phillips, Pearson and SABMiller have also set out what steps they are taking to align their strategies with the SDGs.

But from most of the private sector, there has been a deafening silence. Why aren’t more companies engaged? If you look through the U.N.’s consultation of the draft indicators, the number of companies that responded was shockingly low: thousands of non-profits, only a handful of businesses. Not a particularly balanced starting point for cross-sector collaborations.

Businesses that are often keen to champion responsible and sustainable initiatives have not yet found a way to articulate what role they are going to play. Nor have they found a breakthrough strategy, product or business model that maximises the positive contribution they can make. For some, particularly outside of Europe, the awareness of the goals simply isn’t there yet.

For others, it’s not quite clear what companies can do. This is a shame, because the Global Goals are a clear opportunity for companies. Our research suggested that there are three main business benefits from the SDGs:

  • New revenues – The SDGs define a set of needs and thus a market opportunity for innovative products and services to address those needs. The SDGs are designed to target both public and private investment into the issues that matter.
  • Enhanced license to operate - The SDGs will inform future policy decisions and legislation in different countries around the world. Those businesses that are aligned with the goals are more likely to be in step with emerging policy priorities – potentially enhancing their license to operate.
  • Partnerships with other companies, governments and NGOs - The Global Goals enable companies to engage with, and benefit from, multi-stakeholder partnerships around a shared set of global priorities. Through these collaborations, companies can scale up their impacts and build stronger relationships on business-critical topics.

The important thing to remember is that corporate engagement on the goals won’t happen without a clear business case. The newly launched Global Commission on Business and Sustainable Development has set itself precisely that aim. If successful, it could result in a step change in companies taking action on the goals.

There are over 45,000 publicly listed companies in the world. There are hundreds of thousands of other private ones too. Seven months after the launch of the goals, only a small handful have publicly stated what they are going to do about them. The countdown to 2030 has already begun. In the months and years ahead, those who care about corporate contributions to sustainability must hope that many more companies realise the business opportunity from the Global Goals.

For more information of our SDG resources, visit

This post is a part of the March 2016 series on Inclusive Business and the Sustainable Development Goals. View the whole series for more examples, tools and insights to help you understand what the SDGs mean for business.