Creating positive change with the Sustainable Development Goals in the UK

On 1 March 2017, over 250 people came together in London to explore how the ambition of the SDGs could transform the UK. In this blog Emmelie Brownlee of Bioregional explores the emerging themes of the day.

The buzz at our second annual conference last week was palpable. And it's not hard to understand why. With news of rising inequalities and environmental degradation growing by the day, people want to know what can be done. 

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into force on 1 January 2016. They aim to set the world on a trajectory where poverty is eradicated, society is equal and just, the environment is protected, unsustainable consumption is curbed and catastrophic climate change is halted. They apply to every country in the world.

The Sustainable Development Goals in the UK

UKSSD is a multi-stakeholder network, designed to support the delivery of the Goals in the UK. Our conference this year explored how we can translate the ambition of 17 Goals and 169 Targets into transformational action in the UK.

The day was, in turns, inspiring and shocking. The reality of social injustice in the UK was at the forefront of many presentations – from homelessness and poverty to violence against women and unemployment. We were unable to forget that millions of people in the UK are affected by these problems every day. And, indeed, we shouldn’t.

The relationship between climate change and social problems was also unavoidable. As Dr Jane Davidson, Board Member of The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges and former Minister for Environment and Sustainability in Wales, succinctly put it when quoting Oxfam: “Climate change won’t make poverty history, it will make it permanent.”

So where to start when things seem so complicated? Conference speakers came at these interconnected, pervasive and tricky problems from a variety of perspectives and expertise but a few common themes emerged from the day:


‘Sustainable Development Goals’ is not the most understandable phrase in the world and the sheer number of goals and targets can be off-putting.

It’s up to those who want change, therefore, to make it as easy as possible for people to understand and take action where they can make the most impact – from individuals and businesses to the government. It’s not about cherry-picking the easiest, it’s about making the process accessible.

Quotes of the day

“We don’t talk about ‘sustainability’ – we talk about people’s homes, their neighbours, the food they eat. It works.” Trewin Restorick, CEO and Founder of Hubbub

“Everyone needs to be clear about what their part of the jigsaw is and what action they can take.” Amanda Mackenzie OBE, Chief Executive of Business in the Community

Systems change

While we need to simplify in order to take effective action, we cannot forget that the challenges we face are inextricably interconnected and require us to understand the wider systems in which they exist.

And this is where the complexity of the SDGs comes in handy! The 17 Goals and 169 Targets recognise that there are many ‘leverage points’ for change, which can help us on our way to changing the conditions that contribute to environmental and social injustice. This is going to require bravery by those who are taking the first steps and we need to look to those already leading the way.

Quotes of the day

“The SDGs have fundamentally changed the game. They are the closest thing the world has to a strategy.” Dr Jake Reynolds, Executive Director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

“Unless a business can prove it has a positive social impact it will not exist in the near future.” Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable Business (Plan A), Marks and Spencer


While we get stuck into our different parts of the jigsaw, we need to remember to talk to those working on the other bits!

But it’s not just about collaborating with those who we know. We need to listen to the range of diverse experience in the UK – especially those who are most impacted by social injustice and whose voices are often lost. Again, this comes back to creating an easy-to-understand narrative of change that people can believe in– we have to go and meet them where they are.

Or as one delegate put it, “do things with people – not to. And remember the slogan of the Sustainable Development Goals, leave no-one behind.”

Quotes of the day

“Being pioneering in your local communities attracts attention and can help scale up change” Pragna Patel, Founding member of Southall Black Sisters

“We all seem to be agreeing here that tackling inequality (SDG Goal 10) is key to delivering a sustainable UK.” Sue Riddlestone, CEO of Bioregional (on Twitter).

Author: Emmelie Brownlee, Bioregional