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8 December 2017

More rubbish about the SDGs

There's a constant stream of articles on my social media feeds about the 'failure' of corporates to engage with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One that caught my eye was a report from PwC which, amongst other things says on its cover:

"It makes commercial sense to embed the SDGs in operations and strategy, but how ready is business to support governments achieve these global goals?"

I would rewrite that to say "It makes commercial sense to embed Sustainability in operations and strategy..." How you do that, whether by SDGs, Science-based targets, or, my favourite, Zero targets (zero waste, zero carbon, zero toxins), is really up to you.

The second bone I have to pick with the PwC report is its accusation that businesses are 'cherrypicking' the SDGs they want to engage with. I assume that top management consultants are aware that having 17 generic goals (and 169 associated targets) in every business strategy, no matter what sector,  is ridiculous? After all if you prioritise everything, you prioritise nothing.

I recommend to my clients that, if they want to engage with the SDGs, that they choose which 5-7 are most relevant to them and set stretch targets around those. If you are, say, a cement manufacturer, then trying to tackle world hunger (SDG 2) will inevitably detract from the need to cut carbon emissions (SDG 13) a problem with which the cement sector contributes to by a significant degree. By focussing on that goal, a cement business would also contribute to SDGs 3, 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12, but trying to hit all 17 targets at once will lead to incremental progress, not the climate breakthrough we require.

As always in Sustainability, we must not let the tail of the latest hot topic wag the dog of progress.

For more on the SDGs, check out this edition of Ask Gareth on that very subject.


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16 June 2017

SDGs & Business: snog, marry, avoid?


Yesterday I spent an enjoyable afternoon at Newcastle Business School at an event on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) run by the Global Compact. I was on the panel for the discussion session, the lone person looking at the environmental sustainability side of things – the others were experts in business ethics.

This event was part of a roadshow launched because awareness of the SDGs in the UK has been found to be the lowest in Europe. The presumption then is that everybody needs to be aware of them, but as usual, I'm less concerned with how many people are aware of the goals; I'm more bothered that the right people are aware of the goals.

In the recent UK general election, all three major UK-wide parties made commitments to the SDGs in their manifestos. This is important as the goals are highly appropriate for all levels of Government. But beyond that, is it really realistic to expect someone running a coffee cart to be able to list all 17 goals (never mind the 169 targets) and explain how they are addressing each one? Clearly not.

At the event, I made the argument that every enterprise needs to pick the 5-7 issues which are most material to their business and prioritise those. After all, if you prioritise everything, you prioritise nothing. For this priority setting process, the SDGs and targets provide a useful checklist.

The SDGs can also be useful for a trans-national corporation to use the goals as a reality check, flag up risks and for sustainability reporting (at least one of my clients is using them for this purpose). For entrepreneurs, the SDGs are a useful guide to how the global economy may shift and where new business opportunities may arise.

So, in terms of my supercilious blog post title, my advice would be that business should not avoid the goals, nor try to marry their sustainability strategy to all 17. Pick the priorities and work on those - happy snogging!*


* 'snog' is British slang for a passionate kiss


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3 May 2017

To SDG or not to SDG? That is the question...

The ThinkerInteresting report last week on Edie that the UK Government has no plans in place to  meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and that private sector uptake has been slow. The implicit assumption in the article is that the SDGs are a good thing, but I always believe you should question everything.

The case for the SDGs are that they are comprehensive, third party and UN endorsed. Demonstrating how you are doing against the SDGs makes a pretty good table in an annual report or a slide in a corporate presentation.

The case against is that there are a whopping 17 SDGs, 169 targets, and many of those targets are extremely vague – e.g. "7.2 Increase substantially the level of renewable energy". How do you know when you have contributed to that target?

If you want to inspire people inside your organisation then you need 3 - 7 stretch targets – something jaw dropping like 'zero carbon' or 'zero waste' that really make people sit up and think.

Seven is pretty much the limit of how many items in a list we can easily recall – I'd be very surprised if anyone could recite all 17 SDGs without stumbling. By all means compare your targets against the SDGs, but using the SDGs to drive Sustainability in one organisation is the tail wagging the dog.


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1 March 2017

Build the Sustainability Strategy that works for you


Sometimes I just can't help myself challenging what I see as inadvertently dangerous statements on Sustainability. One tweet I saw yesterday was about how little business understands the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and that this was a Bad Thing. My view is that the 17 SDGs and their multifarious subgoals do not provide a suitable structure for corporate sustainability. So I couldn't resist weighing in.

What problem have I got with the SDGs? It's the same with trying to adopt, say, the ten One Planet Living principles. There's nothing wrong with OPL, but can you recite all ten principles without looking? I bet no-one can recite the 17 SDGs without hesitating. Are all 10OPLs/17SDGs priorities for every business? After all, these frameworks are designed to be universal, and, if you prioritise everything, you prioritise nothing.

Imagine Google trying to come up with a statement on land use. Yes, they could plant a few extra shrubs to attract butterflies at the Googleplex, but I'd rather see them focus efforts on their carbon footprint (which they do) as that will make most difference – and be most meaningful to employees and other stakeholders. Leave land use to the food, fibre and forestry industries.

There's a deeper reason why you shouldn't try to adopt someone else's framework wholesale – the concept of 'Not Invented Here'. You will never, ever get as much buy-in for an imported off-the-shelf system than you do for one which has been created by those charged with delivering on it. A inclusive process of creating the strategy and setting the goals can be used to help create the culture required to deliver them (one of the reasons why we base our strategy development process around workshops for key decision makers).

Strategy + culture = success.

Take one of my clients, Interface. When founder Ray Anderson created Mission Zero, the overall target was a zero footprint by 2020. They break this down to 7 goals which are appropriate for the business – which is good as 7 is roughly the limit to the number of things you can easily remember. They call these the seven faces of Mount Sustainability, all of which have to be climbed. My pedantic side says "but you only need to climb one face of a mountain...", but that quibble doesn't matter – Interface created the analogy, they own it, and it works for them, big time. That's what matters.

So, use the SDGs, One Planet Living or whatever as a checklist to pick and choose from, but build the strategy that works for you and your colleagues, not something off the shelf.

Don't forget to download our new white paper: Seven Steps to a Successful Sustainability Strategy



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23 October 2015

The mentality of sustainability targets

Athlete compete in paul vault

The installation of a pull-up bar on my school run route last year started a "challenge Daddy" thing with my kids where they joyfully count reps as I huff and puff, lugging my beer gut into the air over and over again. As I could barely manage 10 when we started, I set myself a target of 20 by the end of 2015. I achieved that by March and slowly crept up to about 24 by the summer. Last month I decided to reset my target to 30 and managed 32 last week. This morning I was disappointed with 29.

The psychology fascinates me. I quickly met my original target and was then happy to coast until I set another target – unthinkable this time last year – and easily met it again, hardly noticing the extra effort.

A sustainability manager I was interviewing a couple of weeks ago (for an exciting client project you'll hear about next year) used a high jump analogy for this. You have to be able to see the bar to clear it. If the bar was replaced by a laser detecting how high you jump, you would never manage the same height. In the same way you need clear, ambitious sustainability targets, and, when you hit them, raise the bar or the organisation will coast.

That sounds obvious, but I've been reviewing the new UN Sustainable Development Goals for the next edition of Ask Gareth, and, of the 169 'targets' only a minority are quantified. "Substantially increasing the share of renewable energy" is highly unlikely to drive change (and provides plenty of cover to justify poor progress).

So set the bar, and if you clear it, raise it.


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