Achieving the SDGs and the alchemy of partnerships with purpose

If you are wondering how your business, social enterprise or charity can best play its part in delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), you are not alone. Many of us are wondering the same thing…


The Goals were agreed by 193 UN member states in September 2015. Their founding document, Transforming our World – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, makes clear that while delivery of the Goals is the responsibility of governments to lead on, multi-stakeholder partnerships – including those between business and civil society – will also be essential if we are to achieve them. The Goals are, in effect, a comprehensive sustainability to-do list, with something in there for everyone. As such, they’re a huge opportunity for our planet. But how to get involved?


Down the years I’ve found that if you want to make something happen, but aren’t quite sure what to do, it’s amazing what you can achieve if you just make a start. And for me, partnerships are the way to go.


For example, as a purpose-led entrepreneurial charity, Bioregional brings creativity, expertise and commitment to finding ways that we can all live well within our planet’s natural limits. We call this One Planet Living.


But of course, we can’t do this alone. As we develop new projects and initiatives we find others who bring their own expertise, resources and perspectives. Together these all add up to something none of us would have been able to achieve on our own. Clearer plans, partnerships and action on the ground naturally emerge.


In the process, I’ve learned a lot about the best conditions for creating that special alchemy of partnerships with purpose-led organisations. So here are my top four tips for nurturing great outcomes to achieve the SDGs:


Engage at a formative stage. The SDGs turned out as well as they did because governments created the space to engage with civil society, business and expert mission-driven organisations not as an afterthought, but right from the start – and then throughout the process.


Governments were able to draw on an incredible well of enthusiasm and expertise just by making the space for it and by giving due respect to us all. We were invited to attend every meeting, provide feedback, present our own figures, suggest different text, and organise events. We were also able to champion the issues that are closest to our hearts, and where our expertise lies. The key issue for Bioregional was the concept of sustainable consumption and production, which is now Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. 


Inevitably, some political ‘fudges’ had to be made – for example, we weren’t able to get the concept of ‘natural limits’ acknowledged. But the Goals do include the myriad of sustainable development issues in a very complete way thanks to the inclusive approach taken to developing them.


I also saw this approach play out well in the way that both the London 2012 Olympic bid and the government’s Eco-Town plans and projects were developed.


Be ready to be challenged on your core business. If you really want your business to be part of transforming our world, then it needs to be core to the business. This means taking a step back and a hard look at the purpose of the business. Is it part of that 2030 vision that the Sustainable Development Goals embodies, or is it in some way driving us in the other direction?


The sweet spot is where sustainability and business models align, and there’s a sense of real common purpose. Take B&Q, for example. At the start of our nine-year partnership with the home improvement retailer, we looked at how it could help its customers live a sustainable life, considering a customer’s average ecological footprint. This highlighted that the patio heaters had to go, but there was a real opportunity to promote energy-saving products and helping people growing their own veg. Both of these turned out to be best-selling product ranges, but this wouldn’t have happened so comprehensively without B&Q’s readiness to listen and be challenged. 


Likewise, on the London 2012 Olympics, following through on the bid’s sustainability strategy, which was developed and written by Bioregional and the bid company, London 2012. An analysis of the consumption- based carbon footprint by purpose-led organisation Best Foot Forward showed that it was the construction and fit-out of the events which would have the biggest carbon impact – not everyone flying in, as you might expect. This flowed through into strategies for reducing the volume of construction materials and take-back arrangements for venue fit-out items like seating and air conditioning. This saved hundreds of millions of pounds as well as cutting the carbon footprint.


Only settle for genuine partnerships. While companies that are really pushing the boundaries of business can rightly take credit for their achievements, purpose-led organisations play a critical role, bringing their unique commitment, passion and expertise to the mix. This demonstrates the received wisdom that for partnerships to work each partner needs to bring something to the party; each partner needs to have a clear role – and most importantly, all partners need to respect each other. You know the real magic is happening when you experience the camaraderie and fun that can result from successful partnerships.


Get started by getting together. So what next? Bioregional and a few other mission-led organisations saw there was a need for UK-based organisations to meet and explore how to take action on the SDGs. Since January 2015 we have been involved in establishing UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD). Our aim is to create one of those formative spaces for the magic of partnerships to deliver on the vision of the SDGs in the UK.


So whether it’s in this forum or any other, let’s all take the time to start talking to potential partners about how we can transform our world together. Let’s get started.


Sue Riddlestone OBE is CEO and co-founder at Bioregional. 

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