In September 2016, we hosted a roundtable at the BT Centre to explore how business should implement the Sustainable Development Goals.

We were joined by Mary Creagh MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, who gave an update on their inquiry into SDGs in the UK and spoke about the worrying lack of engagement from the UK Government on domestic implementation of the SDGs.

Anna Easton from BT and Louise Scott from PwC then presented their experiences of operationalising the SDGs. Both organisations have developed tools to look at how the SDGs are applied at different scales, whether that is on a country or organisational level. There was a common theme from both presentations insofar that we should be looking at implementation through a shared value lens – we can use the SDGs as a blueprint to benefit both business and society.

Attendees then split into groups for an interactive session looking at how to overcome three barriers to implementing the SDGs:

Lack of government facilitation and incentives

The consensus was that there seems to be a lack of cross-Whitehall ownership of the SDGs. Participants agreed that it will be key for the SDGs to be embedded in all government strategies going up to 2030. The group highlighted that the government has not mapped its own operations against the SDGs and agreed that it would be useful to lead by example.

As for encouraging government to take more action, the group highlighted that engaging the public with the SDG agenda will be crucial. If the wider public starts talking about the SDGs and demanding action the government will be more likely to take note. Questions were raised about whose role it is to educate the consumer. Is it government’s job to tell people to be more sustainable, or should it work the other way around? How can business drive public awareness?

Participants also discussed the need for government to create the right policy framework for SDG implementation, but also highlighted the importance of this not turning into a tick box exercise which makes it easy for businesses to take credit without real action.

The group agreed on 3 strategies to overcome this barrier:
1. Encourage the government to agree on key levers for SDG implementation e.g. procurement.
2. Encourage the government to carry out a mapping exercise on how they are performing against the SDGs.
3. Encourage the government to develop a transparent method of measuring all departmental contributions against the SDGs.

Insufficient corporate knowledge

Participants highlighted that their initial challenge was not the lack of corporate knowledge about how to implement the SDGs but the gap between what they know and what they don’t know.

Discussion on how to plug this gap continuously returned to the question of power: who holds it and how can you influence them? Whilst government intervention was highlighted as key, participants also agreed that organisations don’t necessarily need one senior figurehead to bring about change. Instead, significant buy-in from middle and/or knowledge management is key.

As for creating this buy-in, general consensus was that two avenues would have greatest impact: developing a robust business case that emphasises the risks and opportunities of the SDGs, and raising awareness and thus demand by communicating the SDGs across the various functions of an organisation. Whilst these methods were widely supported, when asked to think more deeply about how they might take it forward within their organisations participants felt opportunities to share and learn from each other through forums like UKSSD would be valuable.

Lack of internal resource to carry out work required to operationalise the SDGs

Interestingly, this discussion intertwined elements from all three barriers. Participants highlighted that it is not just human resource that is lacking but also financial and political. The group noted that continuity was a major issue. Employees who fully understand and are able to articulate the importance of the SDGs are in short supply. It is important that business leaders should know how to engage on this agenda both internally and externally. It was agreed that organisations need a core commitment to sustainability values, but there were questions over whether the SDGs are a tool to achieve this or instead whether the SDGs should be at the core of these values.

The group also raised the issue of ensuring this agenda doesn’t get dislodged by business critical work. To help overcome this it is important to anchor the SDG agenda at the top so that the Goals are embedded into conversations about trust and purpose for your brand.

Possible solutions included internal league tables on performance against the SDGs, financial incentives, having an SDG champion in each organisation and using a more grassroots approach such as graduates advocating for change from within. Participants agreed that having a robust business case for SDG implementation is crucial for maintaining continuous resource to carry out this work. The SDGs can help to develop a structured framework that is applicable at the top level with freedom to localise the process at lower levels across any organisation.

What happens next?

UKSSD aims to encourage organisations to share their experiences and learn from each other. We are keen to continue the important discussion around business and the SDGs and will be bringing the group back together in the near future to build on some of the exciting conversations from this event.

How you can get involved

Have you successfully operationalised the SDGs in your organisation, and feel others could benefit from your experience? Would you like to attend similar future events? Or perhaps you would just like to hear more about UKSSD and how to get involved? We would love to hear from you so please get in touch by emailing us at [email protected]