COP27: The forgotten sustainable development goals

Some SDGs attract substantially less attention and resources from companies

By Shiv Ganesh, Delaney Harness
Published: Thursday 10 November 2022

At Sharm El-Sheikh, while the spotlight is firmly on the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a pavilion hosted by the United Nations is getting considerable attention for spotlighting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

This isn’t very surprising. After all, the Paris Agreement and Agenda 2030, in which the goals are embedded, are intricately tied together. But it is interesting how SDGs are becoming part of our cultural vocabulary. 

For instance, the Korean pop group BTS brought the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) into the spotlight last year speaking at the UN General Assembly in September of 2021 and tweeting about the goals. This helped generate awareness about the SDGs among their legion of followers. 

The group spoke about the promise the younger generation might offer in achieving the SGDs, emphasising a call-for-action on specific goals like the fight against climate change and a collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic

The 17 SDGs are comprehensive, spanning four broad areas — human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption. They represent a bold and aspirational vision of what our world could look like if we were able to transcend our myriad environmental, economic, cultural and health challenges. 

Over the last nine years, nearly 15,000  companies worldwide have begun regularly reporting their progress toward the SDGs through participation in the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), a network of 71 national secretariats and a central international directorate. 

The recent attention to the SDGs at the COP27 climate summit also illuminates a concerning trend: A clear hierarchy in SDGs causes unevenness in both reporting and resources toward specific SDGs.  

In our recent study of SDG reporting practices among Swedish companies and small-medium enterprises (SME), we found that SDGs on gender equality, responsible production and consumption, climate action and economic growth were regularly reported on — and we are now seeing more and more attention to climate action over other goals. 

However, organisations rarely report on goals that deal with hunger and poverty eradication as well as life below water. While some goals are inevitably less likely to be reported on — life below water, for instance, is hardly likely to be uniformly relevant — others, such as those related to hunger or poverty, are globally applicable yet underreported. 

But why do some SDGs attract substantially less attention and resources from companies? 

Clearly, organisations ignore reporting on some SDGs because it is inconvenient to do so or it may result in bad public relations. However, there are many more reasons for such unevenness. 

For instance, the material priorities of organisations affect what goals they report on because they try to align their reporting practices with the needs and desires of their stakeholders or key audiences. This means that reporting likely depends on how companies assess the relevance of an SDG for their business strategy or the SDG’s relevance in relation to the importance to their stakeholders – their material priority. 

This, in turn, warps how companies disclose comprehensive information about the impact of their work. For example, a 2021 study of 140 global reporting initiative-based sustainability reports found that at least 22 per cent of evaluation indicators were not comprehensively disclosed. 

The same study found that third-party assurances were unlikely to affect the transparency of reports, meaning additional auditors or organisations that assess the accuracy of a company’s reporting did little to influence whether companies included more sustainability indicators in their reports. 

Another reason why some goals are more reported upon than others has to do with the institutional priorities of UN itself. For example, there has been a noticeable increase in organisations reporting on gender equity issues within their communications on progress. 

The HeForShe campaign, the leading campaign for UN Women, was launched the same year as the SDGs  — 2015. The HeForShe campaign material actively mentioned SDG 5 (gender equality). It's easy to surmise that the UN’s focus on gender equity may have caused more organisations to pay attention to this particular SDG. 

We can see that the institutional priorities of the UN may also affect which SDGs companies choose to report on, especially when they want to be aligned with UN. 

The third set of reasons is related to cultural priorities. Organisations align annual reports with state regulations, initiatives and cultural practices. 

Take, for example, the nation of Denmark, where extreme forms of poverty and hunger do not affect the population. So, one might expect fewer companies to report on these SDGs. 

To combat this issue, Denmark launched a national project in 2020 to determine how the SDGs could be recalibrated to comprehensively fit a Danish context, with a report called ’Make Global Goals Our Goals’

This report attempts to translate the 17 SDGs into 197 Danish indictors. As a result, SDG 1, which focuses on ending extreme poverty, has been translated into a series of indicators meant to target ending poverty to relative poverty and building systems for poverty prevention and resilience, so one can now expect to see more reporting on the subject in Denmark. 

It’s safe to assume that reporting on the SDGs will continue to be uneven. Still, there are plenty of things that both the UNGC as well as governments and NGOs can do to ensure that these goals are more comprehensively reported on, if we are to have any success in realising these urgent global aspirations.

First, just as academics are expected to explain data collection, data sources and limitations of their research, we should expect the same of companies. We should ask them to explain who their core stakeholders are and how their priorities and needs were collected and interpreted. 

Second, organisations should be expected to report on every SDG. This does not mean activists, sustainists and stakeholders should actively expect major headway initially. 

Instead, the priority should be on good faith efforts — organisations publishing about what is working and what is not — a kind of impact reporting. 

Third, if an SDG does not apply to that organisation, they should explain the reasons in their reports. In all other cases, we should expect organisations to supply realistic data and / or narratives about how they are working toward each SDG.

Shiv Ganesh is Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Delaney Harness is Professor at the University of Cincinnati

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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