On September 15, the United Nations general assembly approved and adopted a new set of global development goals, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are designed to address the massive economic, environmental and social challenges that the world is facing, and achieve three extraordinary objectives by 2030:

1.    End extreme poverty
2.    Eliminate inequality and injustice
3.    Address climate change.

The SDGs are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The UN calls it “a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity.” The general assembly stated:

We resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. We resolve also to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.

That’s an awesome, inspiring, and fairly intimidating list of objectives. The goals are familiar. It seems that every few decades, the UN identifies goals and objectives that each nation is expected to help to achieve. And in the end, while some progress is usually made, the goals themselves have remained elusive. Small wonder, given the sweeping scope of the challenges and aspirations.

But the SDGs are different. Unlike prior initiatives, the private sector played a key role in the development of the SDGs. The UN Global Compact facilitated participation by private companies alongside government officials in identifying the SDGs’ seventeen goals. And it shows. Borrowing from business’s planning processes, the goals are accompanied by a set of deadline-focused targets and key performance indicators to measure whether the world is on track to meeting the goals. Sound familiar?  The SDGs are primed for success with the backing of the private sector.

What do the SGDs mean for business?  

The SDGs carry the tacit implication that the business community is key to their achievement. Phrases like “shared prosperity,” “sustained economic growth,” and “decent work for all,” signal a responsibility that is shared by the public and private sectors. The truth is, while achieving the SDGs is the responsibility of national governments, those governments cannot succeed without the private sector.

We’ve written before on the role of business in creating solutions to critical global challenges. The SDGs add another way of considering how the intersection of global issues and private interests can help to solve problems, create new opportunities, and drive innovation.

Some of the goals target specific industries, where the need for participation by private business is obvious:

Goal 2 (end hunger, food security, improved nutrition, and sustainable agriculture): agriculture, food production

Goal 3 (healthy lives and well-being for all): healthcare

Goal 6 (availability of clean water and sanitation): water, utilities

Goal 7 (access to affordable, reliable and clean energy): utilities, energy and mining

But beyond these industry-specific goals, other SDGs focus more broadly on issues that affect all business. They show the connection between sustainable business success and societal and planetary well-being.

Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

Goal 8 marks the end of development as one-way “aid” to those in need, and looks to harness the power of the private sector to spur economic growth that benefits individuals, communities, and nations. Achieving Goal 8 will require collaboration between governments and the private sector. Both have interests on the line, and both will benefit from achieving growth and creating value that is shared and capable of being sustained in the long term.

Goal 8 also calls for the end of forced and child labor, and safe and healthy working conditions for all workers. Every business plays an important part, maintaining vigilant oversight on its (and its supply chain’s) operations on these issues.

Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrial development and foster innovation.

Is anything more central to the efficient operation of global business than infrastructure?  All supply routes require functioning transportation systems. As the impacts of climate change increasingly threaten the integrity of these systems, business will have to address the challenges and help craft innovative solutions. This is another example of how protecting business interests simultaneously advances the well-being of all. It exemplifies the “win-win” approach taken by the SDGs.

And, finally, one goal highlights the opportunities that exist for market innovation:

            Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

From the elimination of food waste to life cycle management of materials, chemicals, and waste, Goal 12 focuses on sustainable production and consumption. Current patterns of production and consumption are driving many of the critical problems plaguing the plant. The goal of changing that creates opportunities for business to design, produce, and sell products that enhance health, improve safety, and enable people to live more fulfilled lives. All without creating yet more waste or emitting more pollutants. While this sounds like a tall order, business has repeatedly demonstrated its capability to find creative solutions to seemingly impossible problems. Here’s another opportunity.

What can business do?

No matter how small, every company and organization can play a part in meeting the critical challenges encompassed by the SDGs. Every company has a responsibility to conduct its business responsibly and ethically, which supports the goals. Every company can search for and pursue opportunities for business innovation and collaboration that can help solve global challenges. And every company can increasingly leverage its influence over its supply chain (through contractual obligations, expectations, and scrutiny) to expand and grow its positive impact.

Companies are starting to pay attention. A recent PwC survey found that an impressive 71% of businesses are now starting to plan how they will respond to the SDGs, and 13% have already identified the tools they will use to assess their impacts against the SDGs.

Haven’t yet made your New Year’s resolutions? Consider taking a close look at the SDGs and see where your organization can align its objectives and strategies to support their achievement.  Also look for opportunities for your company to excel and create a competitive advantage. Unsure where or how to start?  A partnership between the UN Global Compact, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Global Reporting Initiative has produced a useful guide, the “SDG Compass.” It provides valuable, practical guidance to businesses on measuring their impacts and aligning their strategy to contribute to the fulfillment of the SDGs. You can download the guide here.