Sustainly founder Matthew Yeomans argues that the Global Goals offer a golden opportunity to rebuild trust with customers, society and governments – but integrating them into corporate reporting is key

Are the UN Sustainable Development Goals any more than just a pretty face?

That’s the question many in the world of business communication continue to ask, two and half years after the SDGs were adopted in New York to much fanfare.

Certainly the SDGs look great from a design point of view – those appealing yet minimalist icons offering sustainability something it has long craved, namely, understanding and acceptance by the business and consumer mainstream.

Even among sustainability professionals, there is frustration about how little recognition the SDGs have attracted so far

At present, though, the promise of the SDGs seems far beyond what they are delivering. For a start, they mean little to most employees and less to consumers and the general public. Even among sustainability professionals who are committed to making the goals a success there is frustration about how little recognition they have attracted so far.

So should we consider the SDGs a busted flush in terms of communicating sustainability within business and to society?

Not so fast! I would argue that the SDGs are set to play an essential role in helping companies demonstrate the importance of sustainability and deliver authenticity in marketing, PR and corporate communication. It’s just that most companies haven’t yet started using the SDGs in the right way.

The SDGs play an essential role in building consumer trust. (Credit: plantic/Shutterstock)

Most in the world of corporate sustainability already know that the SDGs, having been adopted by 193 UN member nations, will influence legislation, regulation and best practice business across the world. That translates into a potential $12trn a year opportunity in terms of new business value for companies that embrace the goals – not to mention the estimated 380 million jobs that could be created or retained in the process.

Yet the SDGs are going to play an even more important role for business. That’s because they offer the best hope for companies all around the world to build trust with greater society and gain the respect of consumers, customers, employees and government.

Think of the mega challenges our world faces in the coming decades: the already devastating effects of climate change, increasing resources scarcity, quality of life pressures from increasing urbanization and an urgent need to address inequality in all sectors of society.

Companies need to make the business case for sustainability by fully integrating the SDGs into their corporate reporting

The SDGs offer a roadmap for companies to help meet those challenges and demonstrate what they are doing. However, before that can happen the SDGs have to be understood within the organization and employed to demonstrate the importance of sustainability for all parts of the business.

Crucially, within companies, the SDGs can act as the catalyst and lingua franca for different departments and executive roles to embrace sustainable business, breaking down the siloes that have existed for so long and helping make the business case for sustainability to finance, marketing, operations and other key decision makers.

For that to happen. companies need to make the business case for sustainability by fully integrating the SDGs into their corporate reporting – giving equal weight to financial and non-financial reporting and incorporating both parts of the business into a fully integrated system that clearly demonstrates the economic and societal risk of ignoring sustainability concerns while showing the full value of meeting the SDGs.

Rising urbanization is one of the challenges the SDGs can help address. (Credit: melis/Shutterstock)

But SDG-driven corporate reporting isn’t just important in terms of proving the business case for sustainability. It is absolutely essential in helping companies communicate sustainability to the outside world – in a way that builds trust and abolishes any hint of greenwashing.

When companies accurately document their SDG work in their reporting they establish the foundation of evidence that underpins authentic sustainability marketing and communications. Every piece of corporate public relations, brand building or consumer marketing can now take inspiration from the organization’s commitment to the SDGs knowing it can also be held directly accountable to that SDG performance. With the SDGs as a barometer of corporate sustainability performance there will be no excuse for creative overreach or marketing claims that aren’t backed up by action.

In this way the SDGs can provide all of the business the guidelines for authentic and transparent communication and marketing – even if the SDGs aren’t ever mentioned in the marketing, advertising and public relations work itself.

Matthew Yeomans is the author of ‘Trust Inc. How Business Gains Respect in a Social Media Age’ and founder of Sustainly, a learning and development platform for the SDGs and sustainability communication. He is moderating a session on managing crisis in a digital multi-channel world at the Ethical Corporation Responsible Business Summit this week.

SDGs  greenwash  sustainability  Consumer trust  CSR  purpose  ESG 

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