Will the SDGs enthuse or confuse employees?

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are an opportunity for business and employees to engage with a global movement. As part of Global Action Plan’s regular “harnessing the power of people” roundtable at The Crowd, we considered the potential for the SDGs to capture the imagination of employees and inspire action to bring about a better future.


Now we’ve distilled what we heard at April’s Crowd event on the SDGs, to give you our five ways that SDGs can engage employees.


1.  A unifying banner. Companies already have many activities driving their contribution to sustainable development. The consensus around our table was that rebranding these existing (often) successful programmes to align with the SDGs would direct efforts away from delivering on the existing targets. Lord Malloch-Brown in his opening speech went to lengths to point out that the SDGs are not meant to be a set of reporting targets that companies must align with, but rather a long-term movement towards an attractive global vision. What he sees as the purpose of the SDGs in this context, is to collate all businesses’ varied CSR programmes to show how they contribute to the future vision. It is not intended that companies will report on the 160+ detailed targets that underlie the 17 SDGs.


2.  A community of advocates. Passionate environmentalists who volunteer in Global Action Plan’s programmes often need to know that they don’t act alone. They know that their efforts can change their world, but their sphere of influence is small compared to the entire globe. Being an environmental advocate is often a thankless or undervalued role too. Knowing that there are others pushing environmental change is important to maintain morale and enthusiasm, and if they get to share their frustrations and challenges with each other, they will progress faster. The SDGs, by creating a common language and common goals, offer people the chance to feel part of something huge that is changing the world for the better. They can also celebrate the actions of advocates around the world and see their progress celebrated in return.


3.  No-nonsense targets. Reminiscent of the NSPCC’s Full Stop campaign, the SDGs are similarly ambitious and unambiguous. 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere. 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. 11. Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The importance of setting targets for a team of employees to aim towards was raised often in the roundtable discussion. The conclusion? That the vision of the SDGs (which will take decades to reach) are a long-term overlay to the more immediate steps a company’s employees might be targeting on that journey (e.g. cut our carbon emissions by 5% this year).


4.  Scope for innovation. Leading businesses have flexible innovation programmes, often for recent graduates, in which the participants are presented with relevant societal challenges, but also welcomed to propose their own directions. The SDGs are a well described, well prioritised and comprehensive list of the global challenges in which businesses operate. Imagine a company having an innovation taskforce focusing on every one of the 17 goals. This could lead to an incredible set of business ideas for new products, new markets, staff benefits, cost savings and supply chain resilience improvements.


5.  Spoilt for choice. There are 17 SDGs. Can we handle that many messages? A recent survey quoted at the event found that only 1% of businesses planned to address all 17 of the SDGs. And can we as individuals be engaged by this many goals? The consensus in discussion was that this is a lot to handle at any given moment, but universal action to improve all goals is not necessarily the point. I imagine that most of the 30 million employees in the UK would be engaged by at least one of the goals, and will likely agree that they would like to live in a world where these 17 goals have been met. With 17 to choose from, employees can all surely contribute. And personally, I would be delighted to know that my colleagues were ‘looking after’ other goals, whilst my efforts were going towards tackling challenges in the one or two I could contribute towards.


The SDGs are a bold vision of what the future could and should become. Their use in engaging employees in CSR activity is to spark enthusiasm, ideas and action in our working population, alongside celebrating progress across the world. Businesses can simply align (not rebrand) their existing CSR activity to the appropriate goal, and benefit from participating in a global movement.


Chris Large is Senior Partner at Global Action Plan.

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