Building Management Policy & Research

SDGs: a great aspiration but do companies understand them?

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide the global ambition but how well do those aligning with the goals understand them and how do they highlight their contribution to the national and global agenda?

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide the global ambition but how well do those aligning with the goals understand them and how do they highlight their contribution to the national and global agenda?

The past few months have seen a racheting up of the sustainable development agenda, with industry leaders calling for the post-coronavirus recovery to be green one. A survey of 9,100 global companies published by HSBC found that 38% believed they have a significant role to play in delivering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda.

Indeed, it is fairly commonplace to see SDGs referenced within the sustainability or corporate responsibility pages of annual reports alongside the 17 colourful SDG icons.

The new ‘green wash’

Yet, we have also recently heard the UN urge businesses to do better on closing the gap between sustainability rhetoric and meaningful action, a message repeated in surveys carried out by KPMG and PwC in the past three years, which also showed a consistent failure of companies to go beyond the soundbite.

It’s a view echoed by sustainability and climate change expert Nick Hayes, Director at Strategic Green, and former Head of the Sustainable Development Group at BRE and Head of Sustainability at Arcadis. “Companies need to think carefully how they can realistically align their own corporate activities with specific SDGs and Targets, so that they are able to realistically measure and report.”

“Although many leading companies are clear about which SDG Goals and Targets they are aiming for, many are less clear,” says Nick.

“It’s not uncommon to see statements like ‘We are fully committed to supporting the SDGs’ or ‘SDGs guide our investments’ within their collateral,” he comments. “Easy to say, however, how many would be able to clearly demonstrate how their activities actually support the goals and, significantly, how do they measure that impact?”

Companies need to get specific and relevant

Companies need think carefully how they can realistically align their own corporate activities with specific SDGs and Targets, so that they are able to realistically measure and report.

Take SDG 7 to ‘Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’ and its Target 7.2 ‘By 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix’.

Both provide opportunities not only for companies delivering renewable energy solutions, but also for those driving impact through the supply chain via corporate carbon targets and purchasing requirements.

Yet complexity can hide within what might at first appear in something as relatively straightforward as SDG 7’s Target 7.3 ‘By 2030, double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency’.

This could include new materials, innovation, new construction and retrofit models, training and skills and new finance mechanisms as highlighted through the WBCSD’s ‘Energy Efficiency in Buildings’ programme’  and EIT Climate-KIC’s Building Technology Accelerator programme. Such a Target might require an engagement of a company’s whole supply chain. 

Other SDGs have an extremely broad scope, such as SDG 11 to ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. Such a broad ambition, with such varying challenges will clearly be very dependent on geography.

For example, Target 11.1 asks ‘By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums’. Elements of this, such as affordable housing will be applicable to companies and cities inthe UK, but upgrade slums will have a greater priority in other countries.

Yet what might at first appear to be two disparate SDGs and Targets, can actually be delivered in an integrated way. Energy efficient development and refurbishment in SDG7, for example, supports the reduction of fuel poverty and the delivery of affordable housing in SDG11. 

Navigating the reporting maze

In recent years there has been a rapid growth in requirements for reporting of company ESG, and CSR commitments, giving rise to and a significant number of mandatory and voluntary reporting systems, driven by government and sector requirements, as well as investor priorities.

Initiatives such as CDP and GRI are well established, but newer initiatives such as TCFD are having a significant impact as they have direct financial implications and look at ‘material’ elements of ESG reporting on that basis.

For the property sector, other reporting may be required. GRESB assesses and benchmarks real assets but this touches the city level, where the issues become far more complex. Cities are wrestling with a raft of agendas from resilience and low carbon, through to diversity and biodiversity, all of which have their own range of metrics.

Globally there are over 600 reporting mechanisms made up of around 4,500 targets and KPIs some of which appear in multiple reports but may have subtly different questions and emphasis in the responses.

For example, credit may be given for a policy in place in some reports, whereas others may drill into specific details, such as climate risk management and require additional scrutiny to award credits.

On climate specifically, which relates to SDG 13 ‘Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’,  over 900 organisations have now signed up to the ‘Science Based Targets initiative’. This commits signatories to transform their activities to deliver against a scientifically calculated 1.5C pathway.

“The reporting landscape is highly-complex, and outcomes can vary considerably depending on the reporting organisation, their priorities, and the priorities of those reviewing the data,” says Nick. 

“As the SDGs are essentially measured at the national level, it is important to understand how the laudable performance of corporates, cities and others is aggregated to show progress against the goals,” he adds.

SDGs – the basics

The UN’s SDGs were adopted by all 190 UN member states in September 2015 building on work between countries and the UN going back many years to the time of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and ‘Agenda 21’.

The 17 SDGs have been designed to be globally and universally acceptable and are defined as ‘integrated and indivisible’. In short, the goals can be defined to meet the needs and priorities of member countries and are designed to provide a balanced scorecard in terms of integrated priorities.

The SDGs are underpinned by 169 targets and indicators, defining the level of ambition for the particular goal and the metrics used to define progress. The goals have been established to deliver against a 2030 backstop.

Editors Notes:

Strategic Green was set up by Nick Hayes in 2016. Nick has over 25 years in senior consultancy leadership positions. He was previously Head of Sustainability at Arcadis and, prior to that a Board Director and Head of the Sustainable Development group at the BRE. Nick has vast experience in designing and delivering strategies and solutions for clients at multiple levels, both in the UK and internationally. He is a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Institute of Energy and is a specialist in the efficient use of energy and low carbon technologies. He is one of the authors of the new CIBSE Guide L Sustainability,  published in July 2020.

Image credit: United Nations Photo, Projections on Sustainable Development Goals and 70th Anniversary of the United Nations  (CC by 2.0)

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