Corporate Philanthropy Institute Q&A: Environmental journalist discusses challenges and opportunities the SDGs present to businesses

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for businesses to join with governments and nonprofits to achieve some ambitious global goals by 2030 – things like ending poverty, reducing inequality and combating climate change.

This set of 17 goals creates both responsibilities and opportunities for businesses. At the 2018 Corporate Philanthropy Institute, coming up Feb. 12 in San Francisco. a panel called “EMBRACING: Sustainable Development Goals” will discuss how companies can start to address those responsibilities and gain from the opportunities. The CPI event is co-sponsored by SVCF and Northern California Grantmakers.

Our Q&A features Mary Mazzoni, one of our panelists. Mazzoni is a freelance environmental journalist who reports on the role of business in protecting the environment and fostering equality around the world. Here, she explains how the SDGs came to be, the challenges they present to businesses and the advantages to businesses in addressing them.

SVCF: What are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Mary Mazzoni: The SDGs are a set of 17 goals and 169 targets to address the world’s most pressing social, environmental and economic challenges by 2030. Adopted two years ago by the United Nations, they build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — which ran from 2000 to 2015 and are considered one of the most successful anti-poverty campaigns in history. In addition to nearly halving the number of people living in extreme poverty, the success of the MDGs resulted in greater equity in public education, broader access to sanitation and clean water, and significantly lower infant and maternal mortality rates.

What’s especially interesting is that all of this was realized with little to no engagement from the business community. The primary actors in achieving the MDGs were governments and nonprofits. This time around, the U.N. included a specific call-to-action for business as part of the SDGs. It’s heartening to see more companies answer the call and begin to get involved. 

What benefits would the SDGs bring to the business community?

Achieving this agenda has the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty and increase access to necessities like clean water, energy, sanitation and education. Essentially, it would expand the global economy on a broad scale and empower more people to actively participate — which the Business and Sustainable Development Commission estimates will unlock at least $12 trillion in new market opportunities by 2030.

In addition, companies increasingly want to communicate that they’re doing the right thing in an age when stakeholders care more about sustainable development. We continue to hear about how today’s workforce is looking for companies with values that match their own, and we’re starting to see the same preference from customers and investors. Corporate responsibility and sustainability are key in expressing those values, but it can be difficult for companies to assess how much impact they have at a global scale.

The SDGs set a common roadmap and a common language. Through this agenda, society has mapped out its greatest needs, so rather than guessing how they can best spend their energy, companies now have the answer to that question. With this knowledge, businesses can better leverage their core competencies toward issues they know are important to society.  

What are the challenges for businesses in implementing the SDGs?

The initial challenge is that the SDGs include 17 goals, 169 targets and hundreds more business indicators. This can be overwhelming.

One commonality I found in speaking with business leaders about this topic is that there really is no single way to get started. Approaching the SDGs is a lot like tailoring your corporate responsibility philosophy. It requires you to take a step back and think about your company and what matters most to you. 

The good thing about the SDGs is that they are so comprehensive, so once you take on an analysis like this through an SDG lens, you’re bound to find areas in which you are already aligned and engaged. I wouldn’t recommend that companies stop there — governments, businesses and civil society will have to make some big changes if we hope to accomplish the SDGs by 2030 — but finding and illuminating these areas in which your business is already aligned can direct a path forward.

Can you give an example of how a company can help its own business while also helping society?

Symantec’s Cyber Career Connection (C3) program is a fantastic example, and it all stems from a societal need the company stepped in to meet: While millions of people struggle to find work, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million cybersecurity jobs remain unfilled in the U.S. alone. This negatively impacts not only Symantec, but also hundreds of other companies that are left increasingly vulnerable to data breaches.

Symantec’s C3 program aims to fill this gap by preparing underrepresented young adults and veterans for careers in this crucial field. Nearly 75 percent of the program’s graduates now have jobs in cybersecurity and information technology or are pursuing additional degrees. Expanding programs like this is key to Symantec’s plan to align with the SDGs, and the agenda has a great deal of potential to reveal these kinds of win-win situations. I look forward to talking more about that at CPI.