A quick scan of several 2016 and 2017 corporate sustainability disclosures shows that companies are adopting the Sustainability Development Goals (SDG) as a framework for or as an additional lens, on their sustainability strategy. Example reports from Target1; Washington Gas and Light (WGL)2; Huawei3; Dupont4; and Walgreens5, all demonstrate how they are applying the SDGs in their businesses.
What Are the SDGs?
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, are non-legally binding targets that call on governments to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. Developed by the UN Global Compact and adopted by world leaders in September 2015, these are goals that all stakeholders – governments, civil society, the private sector, and others – are expected to help realize. Comprised of “17 goals to transform our world”, at their highest level, they are indisputable.6 Who, for instance, could be opposed to “no poverty” (SDG1) or “zero hunger” (SDG2)?
In addition to being easy to understand, they are also easy to read and are engaging visual content in sustainability reports.
As with many things that are brilliant in their simplicity, the SDGs beneath the surface are 169 targets that require significant effort to be meaningful commitments to the Global Goals. For example, Sustainable Development Goal 12 – Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns includes 11 targets and 13 indicators. The targets are listed below:
12.1 Implement the 10-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production, all countries taking action, with developed countries taking the lead, taking into account the development and capabilities of developing countries.
12.2 By 2030, achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources.
12.3 By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.
12.4 By 2020, achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.
12.5 By 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse.
12.6 Encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle.
12.7 Promote public procurement practices that are sustainable, in accordance with national policies and priorities.
12.8 By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.
12.A Support developing countries to strengthen their scientific and technological capacity to move towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production.
12.B Develop and implement tools to monitor sustainable development impacts for sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products.
12.C Rationalize inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption by removing market distortions, in accordance with national circumstances, including by restructuring taxation and phasing out those harmful subsidies, where they exist, to reflect their environmental impacts, taking fully into account the specific needs and conditions of developing countries and minimizing the possible adverse impacts on their development in a manner that protects the poor and the affected communities.
What does this mean for business?
The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the world’s leading organization on sustainability reporting, collaborated with the UN Global Compact to develop a guide titled Business Reporting on the SDGs. This guide is designed to complement both the GRI standards and the Communication on Progress required of businesses committed to the UN Global Compact initiative to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies. Using this guide, global brands have begun to align their sustainability strategies with the SDGs. In fact, 75 percent of the businesses participating in the UN Global Compact initiative confirmed in 2017 their intention to contribute to the SDGs.7
Commitments without Credible Disclosure are Meaningless
Alongside this increase in the number of companies expressing commitments to the SDGs, there are some who point to gaps in implementation. For instance, according to a research study funded by Think Impact, a sustainability consulting firm in Australia, only 19 percent of 20 firms trading on the Australian Securities Exchange that had made commitments to the SDGs also provided meaningful and credible disclosure on what that meant. Specifically, only one company provided detailed disclosure on its progress toward the SDGs that considered previous performance or baselines.8
A recent GreenBiz article by Nancy Cleveland of the sustainability consulting firm Sustrana similarly points to a potential “checklist” mentality that can potentially distract from the intent of the SDGs. These are not simply marketing claims, but instead are supposed to be “a catalyst for action, innovation, transformation, and real change,” Cleveland says. She points to a poor example of alignment – where a company contributes to school lunches for 40 children for a year, but pays 20 employees below a living wage – in contrast to meaningful alignment, such as Unilever’s commitment to SDG 6 – Clean water and sanitation. Specifically, she unpacks how Unilever’s water purification products contribute to the target, “By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.” In this case, Unilever documents the countries in which its products are available, the annual number of liters of water purified for safe drinking, and more.9
How UL can help
UL helps manufacturers capture value for their sustainability efforts through our certification, validation, and testing services, and specifically can contribute credible evidence for progress toward specific targets. For example, business that seeks certification to UL’s ECOLOGO® life-cycle based Standards are committing to limits of the use of hazardous chemicals, water, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, designing for recyclability, and more to contribute to targets 12.4 and 12.5. Similarly, UL’s new Wellness Certification helps demonstrate a product’s contribution to wellness building standards, such as Fitwel, a program that optimizes buildings to support health. UL’s GREENGUARD Certification evaluates chemical emissions from products and sets strict limits on chemicals that pollute indoor air, contributing toward target 12.4. UL’s waste diversion claim validation encourages the reduction, reuse, and recycling of materials, contributing toward 12.5.
While not named specifically, circularity is embedded in SDG 12, as it seeks to close the loop on resource utilization throughout the product life cycle. UL offers a range of individual validations that contribute to circularity objectives, from recycled content, recyclability, byproduct synergy, bio-based content, compostability, and waste diversion, all of which contribute toward target 12.5. UL’s new Circularity Facts™ program brings all of those together into a comprehensive measurement framework to measure circularity at a product, facility, and company level, helping companies tell a credible story about their commitments to the circular economy as well as its achievements regarding SDG 12.
And finally, UL supports progress toward other SDG 12 targets. For example, UL’s SPOT® database and promotional efforts raise awareness and adoption of safer, greener, and healthier products, thus contributing to target 12.8. In addition, UL experts contribute toward target 12.7 by serving on committees related to sustainable procurement, such as UL’s Josh Jacobs did during the development of ISO 20400 sustainable procurement standard, and providing input to authorities having jurisdiction and other specifiers about how to integrate sustainability into procurement policies.
To learn how UL Environment can help your company demonstrate their efforts towards leading developments such as the SDGs and Circular Economy, contact us.