Business and the SDGs: It’s Time to Step Up and Smarten Up

Companies should use the Sustainable Development Goals strategically to commit to an actionable and deeper impact on sustainability

Amy Coulterman
6 min readMay 18, 2020


Four years down, 10 more to go, until humanity reaches its best before date.

Well, not really. At least, we should hope not.

The United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which came into effect in 2016, is a plan of action for the world for people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership, to ensure the health and well-being of everyone. It lays out, what many call ambitious, 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets.

End poverty, end hunger and achieve gender equality are just a few of the goals.

And it calls on governments, international institutions, local authorities, indigenous peoples, civil society, business and the private sector and the scientific and academic community to work together to engage with and own the 2030 Agenda.

But Member States aren’t doing so well in their progress toward the targets: no country is on track to meet all SDGs and the world is backsliding with rising inequalities, worsening climate change and stalled gender equality. Countries need to invest more, but companies are also a key part of moving the SDGs forward with investment and changes in how they interact with people and the planet.

Target 12.6 even calls on governments to “Encourage companies…to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle.” The Agenda offers shared and widely recognized language and targets and an international movement and community behind it to propel forward the work that is needed, making the SDGs themselves a lighthouse for companies around which to build their sustainability strategies.

The business case for pursuing the SDGs is extensive, along with the case to engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR). However, approaches to targets and indicators vary wildly between weak and independent, so companies would be wise to be more strategic in their approach by integrating and measuring their contributions to the SDGs.

Choose your own adventure

The progress towards the goals’ targets will be measured by 231 unique indicators, called the Global Indicator Framework, which were created with Member States in mind. It’s the responsibility of national governments to report on their progress on these indicators through Voluntary National Reviews (each country will present at least two by 2030).

Member States are also tasked with creating relevant national targets and indicators based on the goals, which can be similar to those of the SDGs or interpreted for a national context. For example, Canada’s current framework ignores or reinterprets most targets and indicators. Even cities around the world are getting involved with their own local assessments, selecting only those targets and their own proxy indicators which make sense for them.

In other words, the goals can be viewed as guideposts that can be placed onto any local reality in order to promote ownership, which can be empowering, confusing or hollow. A number of companies, in their CSR and sustainability reports, are linking up the SDGs to any number of their on-going activities, like donations, sitting on some business council or just for the fact of being in a “top employer” list.

Really, any company can just slap those square goal icons onto its current work and call it a day. But they shouldn’t.

Compass. Sustainable Development Goals; SDGs; corporate social responsibility; SDG washing; Global Indicator Framework
Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash

Moving to SDG action

Companies must avoid an approach that ends in “SDG washing” (aka slapping on those squares). To avoid this, the company SoPact offers some advice (and videos): to align to SDG targets (not just goals); to measure on actual impact and outcome (not just activities); to not retroactively fit SDGs onto current activities; to collaborate; and to engage in impact measurement and management.

Many companies may reach an impasse or take an easy way out, however, at the point of considering indicators. Measurement of the SDGs for the private sector has been an issue. Impact can be hard to assess. Thankfully, there are now practical and free options for guidance.

The SDG Compass, managed by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), UN Global Compact and World Business Council for Sustainable Development, helps companies with information on how the SDGs are linked up to business activities and how to measure a company’s impact through a directory of recognizable business indicators. The hope is that this will create more harmonization among SDG reporting and support improved and more transparent data collection. Companies can search through the directory and select to use any of the most relevant indicators in their reporting. Additional ideas for business actions and indicators can be found in GRI and the UN Global Compact’s Business Reporting on the SDGs series of reports.

B Lab, the non-profit that manages B Corp certification, has also worked with GRI and other organizations and institutions to build out their SDG Action Manager (which I’ve referenced before). Based on a company’s sector, geography and size, a series of SDG modules are recommended. After completing a series of questions under each module, baseline percentages are created for each and as an average score to represent a company’s progress along a continuum, which can be updated when needed. This format helps to easily aggregate and quantify a company’s impact, removes the need to research and select indicators and provides suggestions for how to do better, but it’s a bit excessive if a company only wants to work with a few and very specific targets or indicators.

So to move from SDG washing to SDG action, there are practical steps that companies should take along the path.

  1. Review your current direct and indirect positive and negative impacts along the value chain in order to see which goals are most relevant to you (just choose a few!).
  2. Consider the Agenda’s principle of “leave no one behind”: how can you adapt your strategy to address inequities and socio-economic structures that disadvantage certain populations?
  3. Consider the human rights impacts of your business activities. How can you address them? Here are some examples of how to link them up with the SDGs.
  4. Think about what you can integrate into your business strategy and operations. How can you take your work to another level?
  5. Select targets and create indicators for your goals (make sure you can actually create a baseline and track your indicators).
  6. Work with others to further your goals.
  7. Get your employees on board and engaged.
  8. Communicate your work and progress to the public.
  9. Engage in national consultations on indicators and plans and consider grant opportunities.

The 2030 Agenda offers companies a way to move beyond CSR activities and engage on a deeper level with sustainability. With its many goals and targets, the SDGs framework covers a breadth of issues to consider when thinking about the private sector’s impact. However, using the SDGs as guideposts must be done in a way that is strategic, comprehensive and action-oriented, with a commitment to measurement and monitoring. Now, more than ever, there is an urgent need for the private sector to step up into its role so that we can move quickly and wisely for the benefit of people and the planet.



Amy Coulterman

Attempting to link a non-profit mindset to the corporate world. Corporate social responsibility | social impact | Toronto, Canada |