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Will the UN save us or does business need its own plan?

SDG. Those three letters are going to become more and more widely understood around the world and particularly for business. They stand for ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ and are the replacement for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals which expire at the end of this year.

These are a big deal as all 193 UN member nations last weekend signed up to supporting them. Broadly, activity falls into the six key areas of protecting ecosystems, health, ending of poverty, strong and inclusive economy, safe societies and global solidarity. That belies the complexity underneath though as these are made up of 17 goals which in themselves sit over 169 individual targets. Loads more detail available on the UN website and across various commentators.

But why should business give a stuff?! As if the recent VW debacle isn’t enough of a reason to take responsibility and sustainability seriously then these SDG’s could and will form future laws and policies that will directly affect business performance. For the food sector alone there are goals around achieving food security, promoting sustainable agriculture, ensuring healthy lives, sustainable water management and energy as well as combatting climate change as a matter of urgency. There are also targets around sustainable fishing, forests and consumption. For everyone there are targets around ending poverty and hunger and ensuring inclusive and gender equal societies. You may be saying we have been here before but these feel different.

Consumers are even more enlightened around tax avoidance, sugar and salt, green issues, inequality and trust. The VW case quickly turned from a media story into one that affected millions of consumers around the world – all based on trust, or lack thereof.

As these new SDGs come into play in January it’s a major opportunity for collaboration like never before. Why can’t competing companies work together to tackle common issues, like food waste. In the UK agreements like WRAP’s Courtauld 2025 could, if truly implemented, deliver many of these workstreams alone but some major multinational corporates are complaining about the small fees for getting access to WRAP’s advice and support.

The SDGs do change things and CEOs must embrace them. Otherwise not only will they lose opportunities to grow and profit but they will be left with higher costs to implement new regulations brought in precisely because they are not being embraced. And trust – the true crown in all this – will decide if you win or lose customers.

Julian Walker-Palin is a sustainability and corporate affairs expert with nearly 20 years experience. He's now the Managing Director of ETANTE and supports many household brands, non governmental organisations and others with actionable outputs to use sustainability to maximise profits, become more competitive and be fitter for the future

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