Are the SDGs even relevant in developed countries?

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Imagine that you are head of a European company. Your business is, like 99% of enterprises in the EU, a SME. Most likely you are operating nationally or maybe within neighboring countries to a lesser extent. One day, one of your employees suggests that the company should start working with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to improve your sustainability performance. You might have heard about the 17 goals but do not have a clear idea about what each one entails. When looking down the list you see headlines like “End Poverty”, “Zero Hunger” or “Provide Sanitation for All”. Living and operating in one of the most developed and wealthiest regions of the world you are having a hard time aligning the challenges in the SDGs with the reality in which your business operates. You then decide that since your company mainly operate in Europe the SDGs are not relevant for your business.

Photo: Adeolu Eletu

Companies struggle to grasp the relevance of the SDGs for their company

Does this sound relatable? If it does, then you are thinking like a lot of companies in the European Union. We can take Denmark as an example. 

Denmark was in June appointed as the country most aligned with achieving the SDGs. Even here, companies are still failing to grasp the relevance of the goals on their home turf. To be more precise, if you find yourself agreeing with the above example, then you agree with over half the Danish companies that currently are not working with the SDGs – more on that later. To set the stage, it is necessary to understand how well the Danish private sector have embraced the SDGs since their creation 4 years ago. In a recent report published by the Danish Chamber of Commerce in September the status of the embedment of the UN sustainability goals within Danish companies was examined. The report is based on a survey among 328 companies in Denmark and contained both uplifting messages and some showing that more action is needed.

First, the good news. Among the 328 companies two thirds (67%) say that they are already working with one or more SDG. It should be noted that some of the companies were not aware that what they did already contributed positively to one or more goals, but they are doing good work regardless. 

That leaves the last third of the companies that currently cannot align what their business does with one or more SDGs. And while it might be tempting to tell the good story about the many companies that are on track, all members of the private sector need to be onboard for the world to fulfil Agenda 2030. 

The knowledge gap

“Then why are some so many companies not working with the SDGs?”, one might think. With an ever-increasing awareness in the media and general debate about sustainability, green growth and emission targets it could seem like more people and organizations are onboard with the new agenda. But despite politicians and CEOs wearing colorful SDG pins on their suits at highly profiled summits, there still seems to be a remainder of those who are still either unaware or unsure about the promise that the SDGs could hold. 

This is exemplified in the report when the companies not working on any SDGs were asked to elaborate on the reason why. The majority, 56% to be exact, replied that the SDGs “have no relevancy to their company because the primarily operate within Denmark” (see the graph below). And keeping the small thought experiment in the introduction in mind, we can all sympathize with the reasoning behind this line of thought that the decision makers might have. But that is not equal to accepting this as the status quo. Instead of accusing these business owners for being wrong, or even backwards, we should instead turn our attention to what might be the actual cause of the problem – lack of awareness and information. This is mentioned as well by the Danish Chamber of Commerce as being a root cause of this trend. As seen in the diagram, when asked about how well they know about the SDGs, around 41% of all the asked companies can be said to have a qualified level of knowledge – or in other words, 59% of the businesses have either none or very limited knowledge about the SDGs. Let that sink in for a second.

These numbers can both be perceived as showing the progress made since the launch of the SDGs three years ago or as showing the long road still ahead. Among NGOs and other civilian organizations, a very similar survey was undertaken in 2018 and the results in terms of awareness were quite different as almost all the asked NGOs knew about or worked with the SDGs. However, these organizations have been working with many of the challenges addressed in the SDGs for years or decades, while it is still a newer addition to the work of commercial businesses.

So what can the SMEs do?

If the global society is to reach the ambitious targets set by the UN, every sector and player must contribute. And while it is true that many of the largest companies who work a lot with the SDGs, CSR and corporate sustainability have a different set of resources than a company of 10 people, it does not mean that the small companies can do nothing. Examples of measures, that even the small and nationally oriented companies could take, include ensuring an even distribution of gender (SDG 5) or disability (SDG 10) among employees, ensuring they produce their products with reusable materials (SDG 12) or interact actively and positively with their local community (SDG 11) – just to name a few. 

So, in conclusion: the SDGs are not only concerned with philanthropy and foreign aid projects in developing countries even though some companies still might have that perception. The goals are also highly applicable in a Danish or developed country-context. But we are all responsible for spreading the word and the good stories about local companies who work with the SDGs where they are and however they can – benefitting both the business and the world. 

What next?

If you want your company to become the next success story, then start by having a look at our free e-book on the 2030 Builders website and find out what the SDGs also are. Then, hopefully we can help your company reach its full SDG potential through our problem-solving and idea-creating innovation tool. We want to help you realize the potential your company and your employees already holds and utilize it to tackle the great challenge that all companies – and the rest of us – will face in the coming years: how do we continue to grow and innovate while making the world a better place in the progress?  

That can seem like a hard question to answer – and rightly so. Doing the right thing is never easy, but the price for not doing the right thing continues to rise; companies might as well prepare accordingly, and so should we all as individuals. But most importantly, educate yourself on the massive potential the SDGs hold – and remember to tell your colleagues! 


If you are interested in learning more about how 2030 Builders can help your business create a strategy that implements the SDGs, send us an email with your questions to tomorrow@2030.builders.

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