The fact that many businesses are actively participating in the UN 2030 Agenda to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is both exciting and essential. That being said, there is a significant risk the SDG could become little more than scaffolding for corporate branding and easy fodder for PR departments.(1)
After green washing and blue washing, the new concern is SDG-washing, the use of an UN logo to signpost sustainability without doing much. The term points to:
Businesses that use the Sustainable Development Goals to market their positive contribution to some SDG while ignoring their negative impact on others. For example, a car company may market their electric cars as saving the climate (SDG 13↑). Yet, the cobalt in their batteries may be mined by five-year old kids in Congo (SDG 8↓).(2) By focusing on only positive impacts and leaving out negatives and trade-offs, companies also risk material omissions and, worse, unintentional adverse effects.
Organizations that set internally driven targets that are focused on what is easily achievable rather than a company’s “fair share” contribution to an SDG.(3)
Companies that reframe their communications while maintaining business as usual. When SDG are co-opted by a company’s branding department, it should have mechanisms to hold them accountable – with data on hand.
Under the guise of supporting the SDG, tunnel vision (designing and measuring success against a single goal or, even worse, a single target under a goal) and myopia (setting a strategy without understanding the long-term sustainability agenda) may deliver weak or counterproductive contributions to the goals. A company’s support of the SDG is not necessarily a proxy for doing good. Business leaders who want to support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in a way that is both strategic and responsible must ask themselves, “We want to leverage our business practice to support the SDG, but how can we do so in a way that is effective, ambitious, and conscientious?"
Given that the SDG provide a powerful framework for companies to mobilize, organize both internally and with partners, and take action, the first step is to stop trying to visualize the entire SDG framework, and frame it as a hierarchy of connected and sequenced goals. This helps prioritize and build a logic for choice and to integrate the strategy for building a sustainable business with the company’s strategy for engaging in sustainable development.(4)
How do we prevent a new wave of “SDG-washing”?(5)
Accordingly to the annual ‘Responsible Business Trends Report 2017’, by Ethical Corporation, that examines how sustainability is driving corporate strategies and quantifying sustainability impacts(6), 56% of respondents’ companies are not measuring their contributions to the SDG. These findings are consistent with recent reports by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and KPMG.
Performance data is often the best detergent for cleaning up SDG-washing. When companies make tangible commitments to the SDG, and progress and outcomes can be tracked using objective metrics, there is an opportunity for external observers to evaluate the company’s actions and for company management to allocate resources and execute.
Image: Positive Business Lab team, at the Conferencia ODS, Spain, Jun/18
(1) The Right Way to Support the Sustainable Development Goals. [Accessed on 17th of July 2018]
(2) Ever heard of SDG washing? The urgency of SDG Due Diligence. [Accessed on 17th of July 2018]
(3) How companies can avoid ‘SDG-washing’. [Accessed on 17th of July 2018]
(4) How Companies Can Champion Sustainable Development. [Accessed on 17th of July 2018]
(5) How data promotes transparency and helps clean up "SDG-washing". [Accessed on 17th of July 2018]
(6) Responsible Business Report Finds High Risk of “SDG Washing”. [Accessed on 17th of July 2018]
What is / What are is a new series of texts we will post over the forthcoming months, with answers for the burdening questions we come across along the way. Most of the texts are a compilation of public material we find during our researches. We are more than happy to recognize the authors.