The sustainable development goals – why marketing and business need to be across them

Andrew WoodwarAhead of November’s UN climate conference in Paris, Andrew Woodward argues the marketing, advertising, communications and corporate affairs industries need to be more across the sustainable development goals and what they will mean for business globally. 

Over the last few years, the United Nations (UN), governments globally an increasing number of big businesses have been looking at the future of the planet and its inhabitants.

They have been asking a few basic questions, like “How’s it going?” and “How’s it looking?”.

It is like you or I checking the use-by-date of the milk in the fridge. Well, when the officials looked in their ‘fridge’ they found that the use-by-date of the planet wasn’t that far away.

A lot of this concern has to do with climate change and that’s getting plenty of attention right now from the likes of President Obama, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of England and Pope Francis. In recent times, all three have made apocalyptic predictions on the impact of climate change and the need for urgent action.

Much of that action should start at a UN conference in Paris at the end of November.

The signs for an agreement to curb global warming to a manageable limit are promising but not guaranteed.

While climate change action is the ‘headline act’ in working toward a better world for all of us, there are ‘other performers’ taking to the stage as well and making a significant contribution to a better world.

The UN, Government and business in late September met in New York and ratified what’s known as sustainable development goals.

These goals are the ‘other performers’ joining the ‘headline act’ for a better world. There’s 17 of them in total and buried within are 169 targets ranging from things like “By 2020, substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training” to “Significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere”.

By and large, they are high level and aspirational targets running from 2016 to 2030.

They were passed by a resolution of the UN. Numerous businesses signed up too. They follow up the Millennium Development Goals which ran 2000 to 2015. These were credited by some as helping the likes of China, India and Brazil emerge over the last decade.

While there are 17 in total, there are six broad themes that the goals address. These are: action on climate change; quality of food and water; health; economic development; sustainability and personal development.

Some business media have focussed on only a few of the goals as directly impacting business, like: SDG 8 “Decent work and economic growth”, SDG 9 “Industry, innovation and infrastructure”, SDG 7 “Affordable and clean energy” (Source PWC).

The Guardian took the same view but added SDG 10 (“Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”) saying “The circular economy, supply chain auditing and sustainability reporting – all come out of the shadows and into the limelight.” Academia put business at the centre of delivery saying “Business, from micro-enterprises to multinationals, has a vital role to play in achieving each of the SDGs. The

UN is very explicit about the expectations placed on the for-profit sector around the world”.

I side with the view of academia. The Sustainable Development Goals, all 17 of them, must be taken into account by business in their strategy, planning, procurement, operations, production, employee management and marketing – and everything in between.

Everyone in business needs to be across them.

The issues for marketers and communicators are significant.

In the second half of the last decade, the world was getting ready to act on climate change.

Governments were well on their way and former Vice President of the United States and now Chairman of the Climate Reality Project, Al Gore, took the message into lounge rooms with The Inconvenient Truth.

But then the global financial crisis came along and it was ‘all too hard’ for the world to do anything about it. With the evidence now unequivocal, the effects of climate change being felt every month and, predictions of impact becoming more apocalyptic, the world next month (via the UN conference in Paris) with start the process of action on climate change.

The world will be jolted into action.

As Al Gore said in Melbourne recently “the world must do it; the world can do it; the world will do it”.

The ‘new deal’ on climate change action will put the focus on sustainability like never before.

We will learn about the projections of population growth (and they’re frightening); we will learn how much trouble the planet is in (and it is really bad); we will learn about the scarcity of water and food and reduced supply (and it looks scarier when you see reductions in land); we will learn about the increasing impact and incidence of more deadly weather (and feel is as we do now) and, we will learn more about solutions like renewable energy from wind, solar and other low cost sources (and that’s really exciting).

The world won’t shrug its shoulders as it did in Copenhagen in 2009. If it does. We are doomed.

The focus on climate change will put the focus on sustainability and wake the world up. Not only to climate change but to the need for a more sustainable, green and clean energy future. It is like being told the way to live longer is to lose weight and that comes a whole lot of changes, including diet, lifestyle, attitude and so on.

The world is about to go on a health kick. The prescriptions to the green, clean and sustainable futures are contained in the Sustainable Development Goals. While few customers will know of them, they will expect action on each of themes and targets.

They make sense for society, government and business. In the next decade, consumers will start asking tough questions of companies when it comes to be being clean, green and sustainable.

We’ve started to see that with pressure on banks not to fund coal mines and companies urged to divert of their fossil fuel investments.

A social movement is has begun. We’re at the early adopter stage.

While marketers and communicators need to be across most of the themes and how they interact with their organisation when it comes to brand equity and corporate reputation, practitioners need to pay special attention to Goal 10 “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”.

The consumer mindset will begin to change over the next decade and support what this goal encourages. Right now for consumers it is optional or fringe. This time in a decade, if not sooner, it will be mainstream.

It will change the way we do our jobs.

This time last decade the world’s economy was humming along and and marketers were starting the process of coming to terms with things like blogging, Second Life, MySpace and online forums.

Not long after, Facebook and Twitter arrived on the scene and the game changed forever. Social media was “the issue” of the decade last decade for the profession.

The “issue of the decade” for marketers and communicators this time around is action on climate change and a more sustainable world. Both will shape business.

Both will impact brand equity. Both will be central to corporate reputation. Consumers will ask, “What are you doing about climate change?” and “What are you doing about sustainability?”. So, what are you doing?

Start by having a look at the sustainable development goals.

Andrew Woodward is a principal at Climate Communications. 


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