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Joshua Newton

Corporate Client Advisor
Charities Aid Foundation

T: +44 (0) 3000 123 231

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An introduction to the SDGs and why they matter to all of us

30 July 2019

Do you hope or fear for the future?

Whether it’s Wimbledon or the Women’s World Cup, TV will always be a hot topic in any office. Of late, my desk cluster have collectively swooned at the Priest in Fleabag and torn our hair out at the Game of Thrones finale. But it is the BBC’s latest binge-worthy mini-series, Years and Years, that really got us despairing.

Before you think it, you’re right, it is completely out of my job scope - and indeed CAF’s mission to make giving count - to offer my top TV picks, but stay with me…

With an all-star cast, the show wrestles with the near-future “what if” questions that brim below the surface for many us. How do we as individuals and as a society reconcile food-bank usage and widening inequality at home, alongside proxy wars and global poverty abroad? What about the climate crisis, immigration, the role of technology in our lives – and ultimately the compounding effect of all of these factors. And that’s on top of dwindling trust and populism here, there and everywhere.

In the first episode of Years and Years, Mancunian & council Housing Officer, Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey), challenges viewers to “remember when we used to think politics was boring” and articulates our collective worry about our existence now and in the future. I wonder if this challenge strikes a chord with you, like it did with me.

A plan to save the world

But wait. What if I was to say, in spite of all this, there is actually a plan to save the world? A plan stemming from the world’s largest consultation exercise ever. A plan which is all encompassing and aligns climate action and gender equality with hunger and education and well-being with resilient infrastructure. A plan ratified by 193 world leaders and aims to unify ordinary folk, businesses and civil society. 

Such a plan does exist, and it’s already underway. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), made up of 17 high-level goals and hundreds of corresponding targets and indicators, cover every element of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental.

Launched in 2015 as a 15-year plan for 2030, the SDGs represent an agenda that translates global needs and ambitions into a non-political, common language to help countries, business and civil society better coordinate activities and work together more effectively.

"Think about how you can support the SDGs – whether you work in corporate responsibility or not."

Four years on, over 8,000 leading businesses have committed to advancing one or more of the Global Goals. Together with countless SDG “how to guides” and corporate benchmarking reports, we’ve also seen exciting partnerships engage ordinary people (and TV viewers!) with sustainability. But it is companies like Johnson MattheyNestle and Relx that show that, whilst the SDG journey may start with prioritising key Goals retrospectively, they are most powerful when embedded into core strategy and utilised to drive new, innovative, sustainable products and services.

So is there no need to despair or worry then? Not exactly…


Last month, overshadowed by the latest headline-grabbing warnings of environmental catastrophe and degradation from the UN and the UK’s own Committee on Climate Change, the UK Government also published it’s first review of progress against delivering the SDGs known as the “Voluntary National Review.”

The Government concluded that the UK only has reporting data on 74% of relevant SDG indicators. The VNR also accepted criticism from organisations like UKSSD and Bond that far more must be done to engage all stakeholders including within business and civil society. Several UK Parliamentary Committees have also challenged the level of priority and resources given to the process.

Other “elephants” are also stifling progress against the SDGs.

Despite various examples of companies using the SDGs meaningfully, a study recently published in the Harvard Business Review, looking at 100 of the largest global companies warned that companies are using the SDGs to embark on a massive global public relations charade rather than really shifting from business-as-usual and advancing serious solutions.

Cases of cherry-picking in disclosures and the ability to report on negative impacts in a constructive way are clear challenges for companies.

Within civil society however, the challenge is far more elementary – awareness.

While only 9% of the public know what the SDGs are, the seemingly inconsistent engagement charities in the UK have shown to the SDG agenda is surprising, particularly when every conceivable cause overlaps with the Goals. I see there are multiple reasons why charities may not see the Goals as relevant, not least the fact they were here before the Goals were established – and will be here after. But in a polarised society in need of a story or a vision to unify behind, find me something better to engage with: It’s local, it’s global, it’s bottom-up, it’s top-down, it’s aimed at all of us as individuals, as employees and as beneficiaries.

Don’t give up hope

Despite the cynicism, our SDGs are a real chance to steer away from the bleak dystopia portrayed in Years and Years. They are of course not a silver bullet, but as a lens to help people better understand social need and to focus on impact they still offer tremendous value.

Looking towards 2030, governments will no doubt come and go, but the SDGs are here to stay and their relevance on agendas and policies will only grow. They remain a genuine opportunity to forge new partnerships and tangibly show to your customers, employees, and investors that what you do makes a difference to society and the environment.

The Government’s VNR must be viewed as a wake-up call to anyone and everyone to think about how you can support the SDGs – whether you work in corporate responsibility or not. We are employees and we are customers, so start a conversation about what your organisation is doing.

2020 is a milestone for many in launching new corporate strategies and it stands as good a place as any to kick-start or reboot your SDG journey.

There is a plan to save the world, let’s not squander it.