Sara Blackwell of Shift says companies have been slow to grasp the truly positive results of working to address adverse impacts on people’s basic rights in everything they do as a business

As international frameworks go, the Sustainable Development Goals (‘SDGs’ or ‘Global Goals’) are pretty hip. Each of the 17 Goals has its own rainbow-colored, eye-catching branding. You can buy all sorts of SDGs swag online, or read The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World to find out how you can pitch in from your couch. Kids can learn about the Global Goals from their favourite television characters. Kanye West even tweeted about them.

But, are the Global Goals getting the right kind of attention from companies? More so than the negotiations toward the Millennium Development Goals, the dialogue around the SDGs has recognised the strong role that the private sector must play if the global community is to achieve a world in which development happens in a fair and sustainable way. What’s more, the Business and Sustainable Development Commission estimated that achieving the Global Goals could open up at least US$12 trillion in market opportunities. As a result, many companies (and investors) are paying attention.

The unfortunate fact, however, is that many private sector actors are missing the mark when it comes to the people part of the SDGs. In many cases, business is reverting to a primary focus on philanthropy in response to the social elements of the Global Goals, repackaging loosely related initiatives, or immediately turning to shared-value models as the main solution.

Without a doubt, many of these efforts make positive contributions to society, and should be supported wherever possible. But when thinking and talking about contributing to the SDGs, a company needs to look at how it impacts people and the planet in the course of conducting business, both within its own operations and across its value chain, and put initiatives that address those impacts at the heart of its SDG strategies and actions.

There's a pressing need for companies to holistically carry out their SDG strategies by prioritising efforts around human rights

Across sectors, businesses are examining how they can reduce their negative impacts – their so-called environmental footprint. And those that can supplement their achievements in reducing these impacts by also developing green products or services do so where they can.

Yet this understanding of the planet part of Agenda 2030 has scarcely been applied to the people part of the SDGs. Companies (and governments) have been slow to grasp the important and truly positive results of working to address adverse impacts on people’s basic rights in everything they do as a business.

There are endless examples of how pressing the need is for companies to holistically craft and carry out their SDG strategies and actions by prioritising their efforts around human rights. Here are just a few:

  • For the more than 340 million workers currently living with their families on less than $1.90 per person per day, business efforts to ensure that the people working in their operations and value chains are paid a living wage hold the potential to bring widespread and transformative change by enabling them to better cover essentials such as nutritious food, clean water, safe housing, health care, and education.

  • For the nearly 25 million people living under conditions of forced labour, 71% of whom are women and girls, private sector action to combat modern day slavery is no small thing. In fact, it can help lift them out of horrifying situations and into decent jobs with dignity and opportunity.

  • For the estimated one out of every three women across the globe who have experienced sexual or physical violence in the workplace, in their community, and/or at home, business initiatives to tackle gender-based inequality, harassment, and violencein operations and value chains could fundamentally improve the everyday experiences of women around the world and open up enormous opportunities for their futures.

At Shift, we’re working to help companies and other actors understand the power of the human rights opportunity approach – where corporate contributions to the people part of the SDGs are built around efforts to address the most severe impacts on people in a business enterprise’s operations and value chain, and where the transformative power of those efforts is more accurately understood.

We’ve developed the video below to help spread this message, alongside a compendium of 15 real-life case studies that demonstrate what this approach looks like in action. The case studies cover a broad range of sectors, supply chain actors, geographies, and human rights issues. Some demonstrate what individual company initiatives could look like. Others illustrate what shape industry-wide collaboration might take. 


All involve engagement with civil society organisations and/or government actors in ways that highlight the importance of partnerships in achieving the Global Goals. Some are at early stages; others have been under way for years. None is perfect, but all show great promise and offer valuable learnings for companies, investors, and other stakeholder groups.

We hope to continue the dialogue on what meaningful corporate contributions to the people part of the SDGs can and should look like, and hope Shift’s resources and case studies offer guidance, insights, and inspiration.To learn more, please visit and follow us on Twitter @shiftproject.

Sara Blackwell is an advisor at Shift, the leading centre of expertise on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Follow Sara on Twitter @sara__blackwell, and learn more about Shift at

UN Global Compact  Shift  living wage  modern slavery  Human rights 

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