Sustainability practitioners see little progress made to date towards each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs or Global Goals) – as well as poor progress on sustainable development overall, according to the findings of the report Evaluating Progress Towards the Sustainable Development Goals by GlobeScan and SustainAbility.
While sustainability experts agree that society’s progress on all of the SDGs has been meagre, the specific goals of Reduced Inequalities, Life Below Water, Life on Land, and No Poverty were singled out by respondents as the areas where society’s level of achievement has been lagging the most. Experts also think that Reduced Inequalities, along with Climate Action, Quality Education, Responsible Consumption and Production, and Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions are most important for driving overall progress towards sustainable development.
Over 500 experienced corporate sustainability professionals in 74 countries were asked to evaluate the progress that has been made on each SDG, to rank their relative urgency and also to share insights into the priorities within their own organizations. Corporate experts were also asked how their own companies are responding to the SDGs and where they see opportunities for the greatest impact. As the Global Goals were agreed on by the United Nations member states together with civil society and business in 2015, setting out the agenda until 2030, the goals are new and progress was expected to be limited.
Eric Whan, Director at GlobeScan, commented: “Our research findings underline just how difficult our predicament is, and how much of a need there is now for new forms of leadership enabled by new systems and business models, redefinitions of value, and greater trust in leaders. It is time for a step change before 2030 comes and goes.”
While the survey finds that the performance of all types of societal actors examined lacks lustre, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social entrepreneurs are seen by experts as doing the most to advance the goals (38% of experts rate the performance of NGOs, and 33% that of social entrepreneurs, as good). National governments and the private sector are seen as performing particularly poorly on contributing to progress on the SDGs (61% of experts rate the performance of national governments, and 49% that of the private sector, as poor), suggesting plenty of room for more activity and recognition in this space.
Mark Lee, Executive Director at SustainAbility commented: “It is encouraging to see the growing interest of the private sector in the SDGs as well as indications of the business opportunities related to attaining the goals. More than half of the survey’s corporate respondents say their companies are developing or planning to develop SDG-related products. Many companies are also joining or launching new partnerships and multi-stakeholder collaborations related to the goals. All that said, we will need still more effort from business — and other key players including government — to achieve the ambitious 2030 sustainable development agenda.”
When asked which of the SDGs are the most important for society to focus on to drive overall progress towards sustainable development, four in ten experts (39%) chose Climate Action. Experts are also most likely to say that Climate Action is the one goal receiving the most attention within their own organization (41%), although experts based in Asia and Africa / Middle East are more likely to mention Sustainable Cities & Communities (Asia) and Quality Education (Africa / Middle East) as key priorities for their organizations.
When asked for the main reasons driving corporate support for the SDGs, experts primarily mention the opportunity to align core business activities or innovation efforts with broader societal needs (41%). In terms of how their organization is contributing or planning to contribute towards the SDGs, very few corporate experts mention philanthropic contributions or providing financing as a way to contribute, suggesting corporates may prefer to take a direct role in providing solutions.
Half of corporate experts (51%) say their organization is responding to the SDGs by developing products or services that will provide solutions in line with the Global Goals, while 35 percent mention pursuing public-private partnerships or multi-stakeholder collaborations to support the delivery of programs. Thirty-three percent of experts mention applying the SDG framework to help them set relevant and long-term sustainability strategies or goals for their organizations.
The importance of the goals to the global community and the urgency of the issues they address are also frequently mentioned as reasons for contributing, suggesting that the SDGs offer business a practical guide to help companies work towards achieving a greater collective social impact.