In 2015, the world committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These 17 Global Goals, created collaboratively by the UN, governments, civil society and business, are intended to end poverty, protect the planet and drive peace and prosperity for all by 2030.
In Evaluating Progress Towards the SDGs, a recent GlobeScan SustainAbility study based on a survey of more than 500 sustainability experts from across 74 countries, concludes that progress on sustainable development generally has been poor and that progress on the Global Goals has been limited. But that’s not the story here. It’s still early days, and it is not likely that many observers would have expected a different result.
One might be alarmed at how poorly national governments are seen by experts as having contributed to progress on the SDGs, but this not new either.
The private sector fares little better in the assessment of experts, but this is where it gets interesting. When experts working in business are asked how, if at all, their company is contributing or planning to contribute to the SDGs, more than 90% of them say that they are in one way or another. And it turns out that they are doing so because it makes good business sense.
Half of private sector respondents tell us that they are contributing to the SDGs with product and service solutions, and another third see new opportunities for collaboration. Others are using the goals to help focus their sustainability strategies.
When asked specifically why companies are getting involved, the largest proportion points to opportunities to align basic business activities with societal needs and to help focus on innovation. For three in ten, the SDGs present a recognized opportunity for revenue growth and entry into new markets. Indeed, the Business and Sustainable Development Commission counts at least $12 trillion in business activity resulting from achieving the SDGs.
So if the business case has been made, where do we start? Our consultation with experts had them rate the degree of importance of each SDG and the progress made on these goals to date. The chart below showcases the results and shows the relative positioning of each goal on the two dimensions of importance and progress. Climate action (Global Goal 13), with all its systemic implications, is positioned in the top right quadrant as the most important goal and one where there has been relatively positive progress. In contrast, reduced inequalities (Global Goal 10), is an area where experts believe progress has been most limited. Given its deemed importance, it will be critical to track progress on this goal going forward.
So, perhaps there is cause for some optimism. Looking back over a dozen or so years, we find that experts are becoming less critical of global achievement overall. In 2017, 54% of experts now rate overall progress as poor, compared with 84% in the 2005 iteration of this study.