Global Aims for Sustainable Gains: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Part II

November 10, 2021 - Stinson Woodward Ferguson
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have evolved into a gold standard for corporate sustainability. In our recent blog, Global Aims for Sustainable Gains: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Part I, we discussed the origin of the 17 SDGs and why they are relevant and useful to companies operating in the United States.

E_SDG_poster_UN_emblem_WEB-2020.pngAbstract examples were provided, but a deeper dive is warranted. When preparing to integrate one or more of the SDGs into your business strategy, it is advisable to first identify your organization’s sustainability strengths and weaknesses as well as any contributing factors. Once identified, this information should be the focus of inclusive internal stakeholder conversations to discuss which SDGs align with the areas where the organization is doing well and which SDGs align with the areas where there is room for growth. After your organization has 1) established which SDG(s) it will focus on; 2) measured its current success, or room for improvement, in this area(s); and 3) set reasonable goals and paths to achievement accordingly, then it should determine how it will share this information externally.

Sweden-based Volvo Cars broke ground on its first American plant in Berkeley County, South Carolina, in 2015. This 2.5 million sq. ft. facility occupies 1,600 acres and employs nearly 1,500 people. In 2021, Volvo received the highest possible rating for sustainability from EcoVadis, a globally-respected corporate sustainability assessor. EcoVadis assessments evaluate the sustainability of corporate supply chains and report on four main aspects: environment, labor and human rights, ethics, and sustainable procurement. EcoVadis recognized Volvo’s extraordinary sustainability efforts, including those to reduce carbon emissions, prioritize diversity and inclusion, and champion labor rights. With regard to carbon emissions, Volvo has set a goal to reduce its lifecycle carbon footprint per vehicle by 40% by 2025, and to become carbon-neutral by 2040. Volvo plans to accomplish this by addressing carbon emissions in its manufacturing network, its supply chain and through recycling and reuse of materials. In its 2020 Annual Report to investors, Volvo emphasizes its commitment to supporting the SDGs, stating that “[t]he SDGs act as our guide, where we focus on and address 5 of the 17 goals [Nos. 5, 8, 11, 12, and 13] through our sustainability strategy.”

BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, executes its progressive sustainability initiatives by developing solutions for clients which “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.” With approximately 17,000 employees in North America and sales of $18.7 billion in 2020, BASF is the New Jersey-based, North American affiliate of BASF SE in Ludwigshafen, Germany. BASF has three locations in South Carolina, all of which currently offer BASF’s Earn and Learn Program, which “aims to meet future talent needs for a skilled and diverse technician workforce with an emphasis on attracting more females.” This program is part of BASF’s North American Apprenticeship Development Program (NAADP). NAADP apprentices are paid a full-time, hourly wage which increases over the course of the program and includes benefits. Additionally, participants gain on-the-job training and earn a certificate in Process Technology from a local technical college. BASF covers the cost of tuition, books and fees associated with the certificate program, and apprentices are considered for full-time positions within BASF after completion of the NAADP. BASF, which was “actively involved in the development of the SDGs as a member of working groups,” has a dedicated webpage outlining its support of and contributions to each of the SDGs. In 2017, BASF was recognized by the Global Compact Network Canada (GCNC) for outstanding efforts to advance the SDGs. GCNC’s theme that year was SDG No. 17, Partnership for the Goals.

You need not adopt practices and report on all 17 SDGs. In fact, this could do your organization more harm than good by exposing you to potential claims of greenwashing if you misrepresent what you are truly doing or producing. It may be better for your organization to pursue and report on 1-2 SDGs effectively than to claim more and set your organization up for allegations of misrepresentation. Although all 17 SDGs are addressed to varying extent by BASF on its SDG webpage, for example, the company elevates 10 of the 17 (Nos. 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, and 17) as being “of great importance” to the company. Similarly, Microsoft’s SDG report presents corporate information relevant to each of the 17 SDGs in two separate sections: “The SDGs We Focus on” (Nos. 4, 8, 13, and 16) and “The SDGs We Contribute Toward” (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, and 17). 

Additionally, a sustainable approach to the SDGs is key. How and whether your business strategy aligns with certain SDGs may change as your organization evolves and becomes more intentional about sustainability. It would not be surprising if Microsoft, for example, were to shift one or more of the SDGs from its “contribute” section to its “focus” section, or vice versa, in future SDG reports. Your organization should remain open to adapting its approach pursuing the SDGs based on considerations like stakeholder feedback, industry trends, social concerns, new data, and technological advances.

Boeing, America’s biggest manufacturing exporter and the largest aerospace company in the world employs more than 140,000 people across ten states in the U.S., over 5,000 of which are located in South Carolina. Boeing broke ground on its North Charleston, South Carolina site in 2009.  Boeing South Carolina was the company’s first 100% renewable energy site, with as much as 20% supplied by on-site rooftop solar panels. In January 2021, Boeing announced its commitment to develop commercial jets equipped to fly on 100% sustainable fuel by 2030. At the time, the company had already successfully conducted test flights “replacing petroleum jet fuel with 100% sustainable fuels to address the urgent challenge of climate change.” Current fuel specifications only allow up to a 50/50 mix of sustainable and conventional jet fuel. Additionally, through educational programs, Boeing South Carolina has reached over 100,000 middle and high school students in the state. In its 2021 Sustainability Report, Boeing highlights the SDGs that align with its practices related to people (Nos. 3, 4, 5, 8, and 10), products and services (Nos. 3, 8, 9, and 13), and operations (Nos. 3, 8, 9, 12, and 13).

Regardless of your industry or company size, there is something in at least one of the SDGs for your organization to adopt, implement and utilize as a business development tool. The SDGs are viewed as interconnected, so success in one promotes success for others. Taking action to address climate change (No. 13), for example, addresses threats to life on land (SDG No. 15) and below water (No. 14). Targeting good health and well-being (No. 3) works to reduce inequalities (No. 10) and poverty (No. 1). Championing quality education (No. 4) sets the stage for more decent work and economic growth (No. 8). The SDGs can serve not only as guiding principles for your organization’s sustainability journey, but they can also serve as themes to help you tell an authentic corporate story – the past, present and future of your organization, and its place in and influence on a more sustainable world.

If you have questions about what your organization can do to remain competitive while efficiently, ethically and responsibly leveraging financial, natural and human resources, please reach out to Stinson