The Global Goals Misstep: How Businesses Misinterpret and Overshadow Nations’ SDG Agendas

It is increasingly common to see businesses of all sizes proclaiming their support for the SDGs. These declarations are often made with great fanfare, accompanied by glossy reports and marketing campaigns designed to showcase a company’s commitment to making the world a better place. However, beneath the surface of these well-intentioned claims lies a fundamental misunderstanding. The SDGs, a suite of 17 global objectives set by the United Nations in 2015, were crafted primarily for nations, not corporations.

They never claim otherwise: “The Sustainable Development Goals are a call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection.”  [src]

The reality is stark: unless businesses are directly targeting an SDG goal or measure at a scale that would move the needle for the nation that it occurs in so that it can be reported by that nation, they’re likely just doing good — not advancing the SDGs.

The reality of the SDGs

The SDGs were born out of an urgent need to address the planet’s most pressing challenges by 2030, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice. Each goal is accompanied by specific targets and indicators meant to guide national policies and foster international cooperation. The ambitious nature of the SDGs calls for a collective effort, one that transcends borders and sectors. Yet, their primary audience and actors were envisioned to be national governments, not the private sector.

Many businesses, eager to align with the positive image of the SDGs, claim to support these goals through various initiatives, from reducing carbon emissions to promoting inclusive hiring practices. While such efforts are beneficial and necessary, they often lack a direct linkage to the SDGs’ specific targets and indicators. A company recycling its waste is commendable, but without a strategic alignment to, say, SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), its impact on advancing the global goals remains indirect and unmeasured.

An SDG target is a specific objective that needs to be achieved in order to fulfill the broader Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations. Each of the 17 SDGs is broken down into multiple targets, amounting to a total of 169 targets, which provide a detailed roadmap of the actions required to address global challenges such as poverty, inequality, climate change, and environmental protection. These targets are concrete, specific, and actionable, aiming to guide national and international efforts towards sustainable development.

Accompanying these targets are SDG indicators, which are quantitative or qualitative metrics used to measure progress towards each target. The indicators are tools for monitoring and assessment, allowing governments, organizations, and stakeholders to evaluate how effectively they are advancing towards the achievement of the SDGs. They serve as benchmarks for tracking improvements, identifying gaps, and informing policy decisions, ensuring that the journey towards sustainability is measurable and accountable. Together, SDG targets and indicators form a comprehensive framework that operationalizes the SDGs, turning lofty ambitions into tangible actions and outcomes.

The Difference Between Doing Good and Advancing the SDGs

There’s a critical distinction to be made between conducting business in an ethical and sustainable manner and actively advancing the SDGs. Doing good — operating responsibly, ethically, and sustainably — is foundational for any business aspiring to contribute positively to society. However, advancing the SDGs requires a more targeted approach: direct contributions to the specific targets and indicators outlined by the UN. It demands not just intention but measurable impact, something many businesses gloss over in their SDG-related communications.

The Role of Businesses in Supporting the SDGs

This is not to say businesses cannot or should not support the SDGs. On the contrary, the private sector’s resources, innovation, and influence are indispensable in the quest to achieve these goals. However, genuine support for the SDGs goes beyond superficial claims. It involves integrating SDG targets into core business strategies, measuring and reporting impact in a transparent and rigorous manner, and engaging in meaningful partnerships with governments, NGOs, and civil society to address the goals collaboratively.

Businesses have the potential to make significant contributions to the SDGs, but this requires a shift from broad, non-specific claims of support to focused, strategic, and measurable actions. For example, a company committed to SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) might invest in sustainable water management practices within its operations and in the communities where it operates, measuring and reporting the volume of water saved or the number of people given access to clean water.

In the pursuit of sustainable development, businesses wield unparalleled influence and resources capable of addressing the root causes behind the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These global challenges—ranging from environmental degradation to inequality and poverty—are often intricately linked to business practices, supply chains, and consumption patterns. It’s within this context that the corporate sector’s potential to drive significant change becomes evident. By rethinking strategies, innovating sustainable solutions, and prioritizing ethical practices, businesses can not only mitigate their adverse impacts but also contribute positively towards achieving the SDGs.

What are we doing at GPM? Don’t we link to the goals with our standards and tools?

At GPM, we recognize the pivotal role that project management plays in this transformative process. Projects are the vehicles for change in organizations, capable of steering operational shifts, implementing new technologies, and fostering sustainable practices. However, for projects to truly align with the ethos of the SDGs, they must be managed through a lens that prioritizes sustainability. It’s with this understanding that we developed the P5 Standard, an innovative framework designed specifically for the project profession to integrate sustainability into project management directly targeting the systemic challenges at the heart of the SDGs. The P5 Standard emphasizes a holistic and sustainable approach, encapsulated in five core pillars: People, Planet, Prosperity, Products, and Process and addresses the root causes that underpin each SDG.

  • People: Focuses on ensuring that projects contribute positively to human well-being, advocating for stakeholder engagement, community benefits, and the protection of human rights. It aligns with the SDGs’ emphasis on ending poverty, improving health and education, and reducing inequalities.
  • Planet: Acknowledging the critical importance of environmental stewardship, this pillar aims to minimize negative impacts on the environment while promoting resource efficiency and biodiversity. It resonates with the SDGs’ goals related to climate action, life below water, and life on land.
  • Prosperity: Focuses on fostering economic growth and development without compromising the future. Projects under this pillar seek to innovate and drive economic success in ways that are sustainable and equitable, mirroring the SDGs’ call for decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation, and infrastructure.
  • Products: Emphasizes the sustainability of the outputs and outcomes of projects, ensuring that products and services contribute to sustainability and are designed with their entire lifecycle in mind. It supports the SDGs’ focus on responsible consumption and production.
  • Process: Advocates for sustainable project management practices themselves, emphasizing efficiency, continuous improvement, and the integration of sustainability principles into all stages of the project life cycle. This approach is fundamental to achieving all SDGs, as it ensures the means of implementation are as sustainable as the ends.

By embedding these five Ps into project management, the P5 Standard offers a comprehensive framework that not only aligns with but actively promotes the principles of the SDGs. It acknowledges that the root causes of global challenges are complex and interlinked, requiring a multifaceted and integrated approach to address.

The P5 Standard enables project managers and businesses to rethink their projects from the ground up, considering not just the immediate objectives but the broader impact on society, the economy, and the environment.

The adoption of the P5 Standard by businesses and project professionals represents a significant step forward in operationalizing sustainability. It moves beyond the traditional profit-centric model, challenging organizations to think about how their projects can contribute to a better world. By focusing on People, Planet, Prosperity, Products, and Process, the P5 Standard provides a blueprint for businesses to not only mitigate their adverse impacts but to become active participants in achieving the SDGs.

In essence, GPM’s P5 Standard is a transformative tool that empowers the project profession to lead the way in sustainable development. It shows that through thoughtful, principled project management, businesses can address the root causes of what necessitated the SDGs to begin with, driving positive change that benefits both the planet and its people. Through this comprehensive approach, projects become not just mechanisms for delivering outputs but powerful catalysts for global sustainability and equity.

Some Final Thoughts…

In the rush to associate with the positive image of the SDGs, businesses must resist the temptation to make unfounded claims about their contributions. Doing good in the realm of business is crucial, but it is not synonymous with advancing the SDGs.

For the private sector’s immense power to be harnessed effectively for the global goals, honesty, specificity, and accountability are non-negotiable. As we move forward, let’s encourage businesses to adopt a more nuanced and honest approach to their role in achieving the SDGs, focusing on real, measurable impacts rather than mere intentions. Only then can we collectively make strides towards a more sustainable and equitable world.

Dr. Joel Carboni

Dr. Joel Carboni is a highly respected expert in sustainable project management. He is a graduate of Ball State University and holds a Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and Environment. He has over 25 years of experience in project management, including government, finance, consulting, manufacturing, and education. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and events related to project management and sustainability and has worked in more than 50 countries. In addition to serving as President Emeritus of the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in the United States and being a member of the Global advisory board, Dr. Carboni is also the founder of GPM (Green Project Management) and a visiting professor at Skema Business School. He is also the GPM representative to the United Nations Global Compact, where he was a founding signatory of the Business for Peace Initiative and the Anti-Corruption call to action and a contributor to the development of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). Dr. Carboni is the creator of the PRiSM™ project delivery methodology and the P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management and has written training programs on Green and Sustainable Project Management that are offered in more than 145 countries through professional training providers, business associations, and universities. He is the lead author of the book "Sustainable Project Management."

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