The Ultimate Guide To SDGs: What They Are, Why They Matter, & How To Implement Them In Your Business

As a socially and environmentally responsible business, you –like so many others– want to do right by the planet and the people on it. Working toward a social and climate-positive future through business is a big reason why you started this journey in the first place, right? 

Being in the impact-driven business sector, you already know our planet faces many global challenges, including climate change, land degradation, water and food insecurity, poverty, inequality, conflict, and more. You also know that all of these challenges require solutions. 

As human beings on this shared planet, we all have “a responsibility to be part of the solution to social and climate issues, and our goals should represent the importance of that.” (Forbes

But instead of tackling all the global challenges we face as humans, why not start with one or two? As an impact-driven business, you can do more good by dialing in on one or two issues instead of spreading yourself thin across all of them. 

The question is, how can you double down and transform your business models and systems to make a positive impact? 

You can start by implementing or committing to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ensuring these goals reflect, influence, and align with your core brand values and how you operate your business from the inside out! 

If you aren’t sure what Sustainable Development Goals are or why they matter, this “ultimate guide” style post will unpack and demystify them for you. Learn what SDGs mean, why they are essential for business, why they will help the world, what exactly each goal involves, and how to implement them into your business, plus tools and action steps you can take today!

But first, let’s start with the basics.

What Are Sustainable Development Goals?

Sustainable Development Goals are a universal call to action for nations, industries, businesses, and individuals to transform our planet for the better. 

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals –also called Global Goals – that all contribute toward the overarching target “of ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.” (United Nations)

Collective action is the key to achieving a social, environmental, and climate-positive future for all, and SDGs provide a “unique opportunity for all sectors to rally around a common global agenda.” (Fast Company)

Individual SDGs Explained

While each SDG is distinctive and unique, sustainable development is holistic and interconnected, meaning action in one SDG will affect outcomes in others. Therefore, if your business only focuses on one SDG, you will still beneficially impact the rest. 

Once you have a specific goal you want to achieve, it’s important to understand that SDG is broken down by underlying targets to hit within each goal. 

For example, Goal 13: Climate Action has goal targets that include: 1) improving education and awareness about climate change, 2) integrating climate change measures into national policies, strategies, and planning, and 3) strengthening resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries, plus many more. (UNDP)

In addition, each target has corresponding indicators that track each goal’s progress (or regression). 

How Can We Achieve SDGs?

While governments and nonprofits can be large participants in the collective action needed to reach the 17 SDGs by 2030, small and large businesses (and individuals!) are expected to “make contributions that change impractical and unsustainable consumption and production patterns.” (National Geographic)

Businesses of any size and sector or market can contribute to the SDGs. Even yours! 

The UN Global Compact wants “companies to first do business responsibly and then pursue opportunities to solve societal challenges through business innovation and collaboration.” {UN Global Impact) 

It’s also important to note that everyone can contribute positively and negatively toward SDGs. Analyzing your business systems and practice should highlight both what you can add to make a positive impact and what actions you need to stop to avoid a negative impact. 

Why SDGs Matter In Business

Your business can be a force for good. Committing to SDGs can benefit the people, the planet, and your business! So why not implement them into your practices? 

Not only can SDGs bring greater awareness towards impact reduction and social responsibility within your business (Forbes), but they can influence how you participate in equality, social inclusion, and diversity within the workplace and beyond. 

SDGs are also an incredible way to build trust with your customers through shared values and goals. When you share about sustainable development goals and how you aim to achieve them, there is a huge opportunity to create a deep connection with your audience and inspire them to take positive action, too!

A Breakdown Of The 17 SDG goals

All 17 SDGs are designed to overlap across five critical social and environmental issues: people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership. 

Below you’ll find the overarching goal of each SDG and ideas for how your business can implement them into your practice and policies. 

Goal 1: No Poverty

End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

What businesses can do: 

  • Recruit, train, and employ local community members, including those living in poverty
  • Establish zero-tolerance policies on income discrimination

Goal 2: Zero Hunger

End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

What businesses can do: 

  • Buy from and support small, local farmers
  • Donate to or participate in local food banks
  • Be transparent about where your food is sourced or how it is grown and by whom (if applicable)

Goal 3: Good Health & Well Being

Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

What businesses can do: 

  • Offer health benefits for your employees
  • Prioritize health in your business operations (mental health days, PTO, subsidized fitness classes, or therapy)

Goal 4: Quality Education

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

What businesses can do: 

  • Provide employees with continued education opportunities to uplevel their skills or learn new skills
  • Offer internships, work-study programs, traineeships, etc. that offer young adults earlier access to business opportunities

Goal 5: Gender Equality

Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

What businesses can do: 

  • Include benefit packages that include ample parental leave
  • Support and or subsidize access to childcare
  • Pay equal remuneration
  • Establish a zero-tolerance policy towards workplace violence, abuse (verbal and physical), discrimination, etc.

Goal 6: Clean Water  & Sanitation

Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

What businesses can do: 

  • Use best-practice technologies for water efficiency
  • Educate your team about the importance of access to clean water
  • Avoid using chemicals or materials detrimental to water quality (provide biodegradable soap, etc.)

Goal 7: Affordable & Clean Energy

Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.

What businesses can do: 

  • Prioritize energy efficiency across all business operations (A/C use, heating, lighting, turning off computers, etc.) when possible
  • If applicable, get certified for efficiency practices (LEED, Energy Star, etc.)

Goal 8: Decent Work & Economic Growth

Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.

What businesses can do: 

  • Enforce a zero-tolerance policy against discriminatory or unfair hiring and recruitment practices
  • Offer apprenticeship opportunities or mentor young entrepreneurs 

Goal 9: Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure

Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation.

What businesses can do: 

  • Promote innovation on creative solutions to sustainability challenges
  • Promote and establish standards on how sustainability is managed within your business

Goal 10: Reduced Inequality

Reduce inequality within and among countries.

What businesses can do: 

  • Partner with civil society networks
  • Provide educational and entrepreneurial skills training to your community
  • Analyze and appropriately adjust inequality-related practices, policies, and metrics on your workforce (diversity, discrimination, high-to-low-income ratios, and advancement opportunities) 

Goal 11: Sustainable Cities & Communities

Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.

What businesses can do: 

  • Participate in local, regional, and national sustainability movements and policies
  • Support and encourage public transportation services (discounted fares, gas fare allocation for carpooling, etc.)

Goal 12: Responsible Consumption & Production

Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

What businesses can do: 

  • Reduce negative impacts from manufacturing (recycle, upcycle, reuse, repair, etc.)
  • Establish workplace composting practices, create a community garden, or stock kitchens and bathrooms with sustainable, biodegradable materials
  • Reduce or eliminate excess waste or use any waste produced

Goal 13: Climate Action

Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

What businesses can do: 

  • Understand climate risk and build responsible practices into your business
  • Source materials responsibly or practice product substitution to expand sustainable material management (paper, plastics, wood, fabrics, etc.)

Goal 14: Life Below Water

Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.

What businesses can do: 

  • Track the life cycle of products and materials and establish practices to properly dispose of them so they don’t end up in marine environments
  • Track any chemical and material usage within products, packaging, and processing systems and eliminate or substitute when possible
  • Prevent waste mismanagement or littering that could pollute the marine environment

Goal 15: Life On Land

Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

What businesses can do: 

  • Measure, manage, and mitigate impacts on ecosystems and natural resources
  • Implement responsible sourcing practices for all raw materials and commodities
  • Apply environmental and social safeguards when sourcing materials
  • Use best practices for land-use planning and management

Goal 16: Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions

Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.

What businesses can do: 

  • Comply with laws
  • Strive to meet international standards and require partners and team to do the same

Goal 17: Partnerships For The Goals

Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

What businesses can do: 

  • Participate in SDG-related initiatives or partnerships
  • Support and participate in locally-based sustainability initiatives 

How To Implement SDG Goals Into Your Business

As a small, medium, or large business, it’s important to 1) understand what SDGs are and how they came to be, 2) define the priorities of each goal, 3) determine how you can integrate them into your business (when and where it makes sense), and then 4) report and communicate the progress towards your chosen SDG with your community.

  1. Identity Correlating SDGs

You can start by identifying a few “key” SDGs that reflect or correlate with your brand mission, vision, purpose, and values and use them as a focal point for your overall strategy and efforts. You might find that you already incorporate underlying goals within your business! 

  1. Prioritize SDGs Within Your Business

Next, create a tired system that analyzes the SDGs you already address in your business, the goals that can easily be accomplished, and the goals you want to strive for but might take time to achieve.

For example, if your business values equality, do you have anti-discrimination policies in place? How inclusive is your work environment? Do your employees feel valued and empowered to voice their opinions?  Do you outsource, support, or hire diverse candidates? These are all questions to consider if you want to reduce inequalities (Goal 10) in your business.  

  1. Determine How To Integrate SDGs In Your Systems & Practices

Focusing on specific SDGs is extremely beneficial for businesses (and the planet), but don’t write off the other goals! According to Fast Company, you “should go deep on managing the SDGs that are most relevant to your work, [but] you should still identify key management opportunities and strategies to address the others.” Fast Company

For example, you can tackle gender equality (Goal 5) in your company culture and still stock biodegradable soap and toilet paper in your office bathrooms.

Look at the 17 goals and determine how and where your business practices fit into the goals. Helpful questions to ask yourself include:

  • How can X SDG fit within my business? 
  • How can I create change from within? 
  • When I look at my internal operations, supply chain, and overall business model, what can be added to produce a positive outcome within a particular SDG?
  1. Analyze Your SDG Efforts

You can commit to a relevant SDG goal with the best intentions, but if you don’t have data on your progress or don’t analyze the data you do have, you’re just sailing around the ocean without a compass. 

Tracking metrics and staying aware of how your brand or business operates –and then constantly adjusting is critical to increasing your positive impact. 

“Each of your goals needs to be grounded within tangible, measurable facts.” (Forbes) Data provides a framework for your goals, and without data to help you analyze your past, you can’t make informed decisions about the future and how you will achieve your SDG. 

Sustainability reports or impact reports are great resources to incorporate into your business.

SDG Tools

The UN Global Compact launched the “free online impact-management platform designed to address these challenges and help businesses from any size, sector, or market understand how their business actions can contribute to the SDGs, track and compare their performance, and improve.”

Additional Corporate Impact Tools

  • WWF’s Science Based Target Initiative helps companies determine how much greenhouse gas emissions they can reduce. 
  • UN Global Compact helps companies align their” strategies and operations with universal principles on human rights, labour, environment, and anti-corruption so they can take action that advances societal goals.” Their website is filled with helpful resources.

As with anything else in life and business, we can’t spread ourselves thinly across every issue our planet faces. But we can generate a greater impact through collective action by focusing on specific goals we want to achieve –and SDGs help us do that!

Business for good is here, and it’s time to have our integrity and values reflected in the goals we set for our companies, team, and community.

If we truly want to achieve these SDGs, more is required from all of us – business owners, industries, governments, and individuals. If you’re already doing actively implementing SDGs in your business operations, great! But what more can you do today to make our planet a more equitable and safer place for all? 

Are you ready to commit SDGs to your business model? What about supporting or hiring brands who already working hard to achieve SDGs? 

Inside Tidal Pages, you’ll find a carefully-curated directory with search capabilities that allow you to filter by Impact Category (including individual SDGs!) and find new vendors based on the mission and values that align most with yours.

Explore the Tidal Pages directory here –and filter by SDGs, LEED certifications, and more!

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