Sustainable Development Goals: how your business can make a meaningful impact

Sustainable Development Goals: how your business can make a meaningful impact

The Sustainable Development Goals provide an actionable plan to tackle the serious and significant challenges our global community is facing.

These challenges can often feel insurmountable. 

Our environment is facing escalating climate change, ocean plastic pollution and mass extinctions.

In society, there is still gross inequality, poverty, disease and hunger.

But we already possess many of the means and solutions to solve these issues!



Project Drawdown have found that we already have 80 out of 100 of the most viable solutions to climate change.

Providing the additional calories needed by the 13% of the world’s population facing hunger would require just 1% of the current global food supply

To end extreme poverty worldwide within 20 years, economist Jeffrey Sachs calculated that the total cost per year would be about $175 billion.

This represents less than 1% of the combined income of the richest countries in the world..

For the business community, this presents an opportunity. 

To step in at this critical time, mitigate these global risks and create positive change. 

Operating as a force for good not only secures a more stable business environment, but can also be a huge competitive advantage too.

According to Forbes, more than 88% of consumers think companies should try to achieve their business goals while improving society and the environment.

In 2015, a global agenda was developed to create a better, more sustainable future for us all, where these global challenges are a thing of the past.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals cover 17 areas with 169 targets to be achieved by 2030.


The Sustainable Development Goals are for everyone, from governments and big business to grassroots organisations and individuals, in countries all across the world. 

Although they’re not compulsory, the Global Goals have been officially adopted by 193 countries, and business interest in the SDGs is ever increasing.

A UN report released in 2017 found that 82 out of 100 blue chip companies demonstrated commitment to the SDGs in their 2016 annual reports, either through explicit statements about the goals or implicit actions that support them.

For smaller businesses, The Sustainable Development Goals present an opportunity to make and measure positive impact through a globally recognised framework which adds credibility to your social and environmental efforts.

Putting purpose at the centre of your marketing helps build genuine connections with potential customers around the causes they care about, and can be a real asset for your business and marketing strategy.

Small to medium businesses account for an overwhelming majority of private sector business and economic activity, making them an extremely powerful force for good in the efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.


How can your business make a meaningful impact for the Sustainable Development Goals?


Define your purpose

Smaller businesses don’t have the extensive resources available that larger corporations can draw upon, so it’s likely that your impact will be more effective if you focus on key areas, rather than trying to do everything at once.

As an impact driven business, you may already be clear about your purpose.

But you need to make sure this is communicated clearly too.

Think about the problem you’ve set out to solve and the type of world you want to create.

Map out the values your business stands for and the causes you care deeply about.

It can be helpful to set out a mission and vision.

These may sound like tools from the corporate world, but they can provide a meaningful way of engaging customers, employees and stakeholders in your business.

If you’ve got a clear vision for the change you’re business is making, you might even want to create a manifesto or theory of change for your business, which maps out what change you’re aiming to contribute to, how your business will play a part, and what needs to happen in the bigger picture for this to be achieved. (Here’s Ethical Hour’s manifesto).

Setting impact goals that outline the issues and causes you want to support is the first step.


Focus on the relevant Sustainable Development Goals

Once you know what your purpose is and where your business priorities lie, you can align with the relevant SDGs.

It can be difficult to pick just 2 or 3 to focus on when they’re all such important causes, but narrowing down your focus will enable you to make a more meaningful impact against them.

Try not to worry about what causes you think you “should” pick, or what your customers or stakeholders want to see.

Instead, focus on where you and your business can make the most meaningful impact with the skills and resources you already have.


Understand the targets

Each of the Sustainable Development Goals contains a series of targets and indicators, which map out how the goal will be achieved and how progress will be measured.

You might have a good idea just by looking at the goals which ones align best with your business, but if you’re struggling, or ready to go into more detail about how you can contribute, don’t forget to look at the targets for each goal too.


Embed the Sustainable Development Goals in your business

Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals isn’t just about donating money or giving back to good causes – although this might be an important part of your impact strategy.


Embed the Sustainable Development Goals in your procurement, supply chains and business practices

Every business, regardless of size, has a supply chain. 

If you’re a one-person service provider, this may focus on the software and services required to maintain your web presence and marketing efforts – but you can still choose to purchase from providers with SDG aligned credentials.

At Ethical Hour, our website is powered by renewable energy thanks to Green Hosting – which aligns to SDG 7, affordable and clean energy, and SDG 13, climate action.

When you need to print marketing collateral such as business cards, you can choose an eco friendly printer and opt for recycled materials, and if you’re outsourcing tasks, you can work with service providers who align to the SDGs too – like a marketing agency who gives back to good causes for every client they take on, an accountant who donates a goat to a family in a developing country when they complete your tax return, or insurance brokers like Evergreen Insurance, who give back to animal and nature causes for every policy they provide – aligned to SDG 15, life on land.

You can also choose ethical and sustainable software providers and business support where possible.

Simply switching to green search engine Ecosia means that every internet search you do helps to plant trees!


If your business makes or sells products, then the likelihood is you have a more complex supply chain.

For example, for an ethical fashion brand, the supply chain might extend right back to the farmers growing the organic cotton, through to the manufacturers – at which point it could pass through several different hands before it’s delivered, packaged and sent to the customer.

This means you’ve got more to think about, but also more opportunities to provide decent work, fair wages and eco friendly shipping and packaging processes – spanning a range of Sustainable Development Goals.

If your business employs staff, this is also an opportunity to make a difference. You can help contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 1, No Poverty, and SDG 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, by committing to paying the Living Wage or above.

Ensuring your recruitment processes are fair and your business has an Equality and Diversity policy is a legal requirement, but your business can contribute to SDG 5, Gender Equality, and SDG 10, Reduced Inequalities, by going further, taking steps towards creating an inclusive culture and building an empowering environment.

The best way to start embedding the Sustainable Development Goals is by mapping out everything involved in delivering your product or service – from start to finish, and everything you need to make that happen. Then you can start looking for ethical and sustainable options.

This could even include choosing an ethical coffee for your office coffee machine!

Even the tiniest parts of your business are an opportunity to make a positive impact when you start digging into it.

Embedding your values all at once could mean changing a lot of systems, processes and suppliers, so don’t be afraid to break it down into small steps over a period of time. 

You can even communicate your impact so far and what you’re planning to do next, and involve your customers and clients in the journey as you share your progress!


Align to good causes

Many impact businesses and social enterprises go above and beyond their good business practices by using their profits to support good causes.

This is another opportunity for your business to have a meaningful impact against the Sustainable Development Goals.

If you identified causes you care strongly about when you mapped out your values, but can’t see a natural way to embed these in your supply chain and business processes, partnering with a charity or organisation to give back could be a good way to incorporate that into your business.

There are different ways to give back through your business.

You may want to make a charitable contribution using your sales revenue or end of year profits. 

Alternatively, if you have a lot of transactions in your business, you may opt for a ‘Buy One Give One’ model, made famous by brands like TOMS Shoes.

At Ethical Hour we use B1G1 to create SDG aligned impacts with different charities every time a transaction happens in our business – which includes interactions such as every time someone joins our newsletter!

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to choosing the right give back model – and the right organisations to partner with.

It’s important to make sure they share your values and vision, and that you know exactly where your money is going. 

But when you get it right, giving back can be a really effective way to create a positive impact aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals, and if you communicate your impact with your customers, it can also help you win new business too.

Set targets

It’s important to break your big vision for change down into small, manageable steps.

Over time, as your revenue increases and your business grows, you probably want to grow your impact too.

That’s where targets come in.

It’s also important to avoid ‘greenwashing’ or ‘social washing’ – making your business look more ethical and eco than it really is to cash in on the rising demand for ethical and sustainable products.

Consumers are wise to these unethical marketing techniques and understand that impact is a journey – so you don’t have to worry about appearing ‘not eco friendly enough’ or waiting until you’re ‘100% ethical’ to start communicating your impact.

In fact, including your customers in your journey can help build trust and encourage them to support you.

Communicating your intent and journey should be done transparently and strategically.

Vagueness is one of the strong signifiers of greenwashing – so setting out specific actions and targets can ensure that you’re marketing your impact ethically. 

Setting targets for your impact doesn’t have to be a boring corporate task or overly complex, but the targets you set should be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound. 

When setting your impact targets, get specific, add numbers and set yourself a deadline.

If you don’t meet your target, don’t worry, but do take the opportunity to communicate the reasons why with your customers.

For example, at Ethical Hour we re-invest a percentage of our sales revenue into microfinance loans for entrepreneurs in developing countries.

The first year we did this (2017), we made 2 loans.

The second year (2018), we made 25.

Every month when we receive loan repayments, they now add up to enough to make another loan, so we should be able to make an extra 12 loans in 2019 just by using our repayments.

By analysing my sales forecast and setting financial targets, I was able to predict how many loans we may be able to make in 2019 on top of those created by repayments – and I used this data from my business to set a target of 55 new microfinance loans by the end of 2019.

You should set yourself targets (aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals) that are as specific as possible so you can monitor and communicate progress and have a clear understanding of how much impact you’re making.


Measure your impact and track your progress

Measuring your impact is essential. 

Many impact brands talk broadly about the positive impact they make – for example by saying how they partner with organisations that provide training to marginalised communities – but neglect to give the SMART data behind their impact.

This can be as simple as breaking down the numbers.

How many people have been trained in the last 12 months as a direct result of your partnership?

If you plant trees for every product you sell, how many trees have you been able to plant this year, and how much CO2 will that absorb?

Beyond the numbers, what evidence can you collect to demonstrate the effectiveness of your impact?

Gathering testimonials, case studies, quotes and feedback from your beneficiaries is another important way of measuring the impact your interventions are having.

Don’t forget to account for your value chain impacts too.

If you’ve incorporated the Sustainable Development Goals and positive impact in your supply chain and business processes, you can collect data on this and include it in your impact report. 

Measuring impact is a business-wide process.

Metrics you can measure include: money contributed, jobs created, volunteer hours committed, individuals positively affected, resources created, carbon offset, trees planted, tonnes of plastic recycled etc.

Communicate your impact

Cause marketing is becoming big business.

Once you’ve collected and analysed your impact data, you can use this to support your ethical and sustainable claims and build strong relationships with your customers based on the causes they care about.

According to research published on Forbes by Do Well Do Good in 2015, More than 88% of consumers think companies should try to achieve their business goals while improving society and the environment and 83% of consumers think companies should support charities and nonprofits with financial donations. 

The average American consumer will drive nearly 11 minutes out of their way to buy a cause-marketing product and when choosing between two brands of equal quality and price, 90% of U.S. shoppers are likely to switch to a cause branded product.

Aligning your marketing with your purpose will help start conversations with people who share your vision. 

To avoid greenwashing/social washing, you should communicate completed projects or activities that are on the way to completion, with transparency around your targets and the action you’re taking. 

Vague hopes and commitments won’t cut it with ethical consumers!

Don’t be afraid to be open and honest about your limitations too.

The more authentic you are, the more trust you will build with your audience.

It’s also important to talk about the negatives.

You should be able to understand the full impact of your business, including the direct and indirect impacts you’re making which are positively or negatively impacting the SDGs.

For example, an airline might start a tree planting programme to plant a tree for every ticket sold.

They could use this as a marketing campaign to appeal to eco-minded customers, but one tree is not enough to offset the carbon emissions caused by each customer per flight – so this would have still have a damaging impact on the environment, and promoting the tree planting initiative out of context would be considered greenwashing.

Your customers won’t expect you to be perfect, but they will expect you to be open and honest.

You could communicate your impact on your website, in an annual impact report, and in your everyday marketing efforts – such as telling the stories of your beneficiaries on social media, or involving customers in your impact as it happens through your email newsletter.

Across the business world, the Sustainable Development Goals provide a common language for impact reporting, and because they’re designed to be understood by everyone, they are easily accessible for consumers too.

Your impact report could include:

  • Why the SDG has been identified as a business priority
  • The significant impacts made – whether positive or negative
  • The business goals for the SDG and progress made in achieving them
  • Evidence of the impact – including testimonials, feedback and case studies
  • What you’re planning to do next

Many of the issues tackled by the Sustainable Development Goals, such as equality, health and responsible production, cut across several of the SDGs. 

You may find it helpful to explain how the progress made in one area has contributed to progress elsewhere too.


Build your legacy

The Sustainable Development Goals are an inspiring, powerful roadmap to help us build a better future. 

With the right resources and systems in place, businesses of all sizes, across all sectors, can play a vital role in bringing this to life.

I’m proud to have worked with 52 changemaking business leaders from around the world last year on an exciting project that’s helping businesses everywhere make a meaningful impact for the Sustainable Development Goals…

“Legacy: The Sustainable Development Goals in Action”

Written by 52 changemakers around the world, this is more than a collection of stories – it’s a recipe for creating a business that matters.

This book illuminates how people and businesses can truly shape the way our world evolves.

It empowers every entrepreneur and business owner to embody the spirit of giving, to adopt impactful strategies and make a meaningful difference by focusing on the UN’s 17 SDGs.


Inside you can find inspiring stories from across industries, insights into the challenges of being a changmaker, and practical tips to help you make more impact.

If you want to be part of a movement that makes business a force for good, then this book is for you.

Download the first chapter for free now and find out how you can make a difference for the SDGs in your life and business.

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