There is a growing trend of referencing the UN Sustainable Development Goals in sustainability reporting. While there are good reasons for utilising them, there are some potential downsides to be aware of.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) define global sustainable development priorities and aspirations for 2030 and seek to mobilize global efforts around a common set of goals and targets. They were launched in 2015 by the UN and call for worldwide action among governments, business and civil society to end poverty and create a life of dignity and opportunity for all, within the boundaries of the planet.

The UN SDGs were not created with the intention of being used in sustainability reporting. They represent areas of focus for sustainable development. This leads to both strengths and weaknesses in using them in sustainability reporting.

The UN SDGs are well known globally. Other sustainability reporting frameworks are generally not as familiar to people, whereas the SDGs are more recognisable and their inclusion can be more meaningful to people who are not familiar with sustainability reporting practices.

The fact that there is not a strong link between the UN SDGs and sustainability reporting makes them easier to apply. There are not any requirements to meet before they can be used which gives great flexibility in how they can be reported against. The SDGs can be made central to sustainability reporting, or they can be kept as a small reference.

This strength leads to the greatest weakness of using the UN SDGs. It is very easy to use them in a way that does not feel meaningful. The term ‘SDG-washing’ is used to describe reporting that includes references to the SDGs, without making meaningful changes to the sustainability policies of the company.

The idea of the SDGs is that companies will reflect on their current sustainability policies and performance, and make changes, in order to contribute to global sustainable development and achieving the goals and targets associated with the SDGs. If a company doesn’t do this and merely references the SDGs, it can come across as though the company is trying to look more sustainability-focused and progressive than it actually is.

The way to avoid ‘SDG-washing’ is to select the SDGs that a company feels that it can have the greatest impact on and articulating the work that it will do to further sustainable development in those areas. A company should also select metrics and targets to ensure that there is progress in its sustainability policies and strategy to contribute effectively to the SDGs that the company is most closely aligned to.

For more detail on how to use sustainability reporting frameworks effectively, request a copy of our sustainability reporting guide, or talk to a member of our team.

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