New global goals: are they business critical?

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70% of businesses plan to embed the SDGs within 5 years

Is business set to cherry pick the SDGs they'll assess their impact against?

90% of citizens think it's important that business signs up to the SDGs

Governments have agreed new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve, but how ready is business to help them achieve them? What’s their intention and their vision?  Will they be business as usual or business critical?

In an ideal world, every business would know how their activities and the consequences of them (even the unforeseen elements), map across to the SDGs. Their operations would have identified, valued and be measuring how they contribute to each global goal, monitoring their impact, and implementing new ideas to effect improvement. SDG impact awareness wouldn’t be confined to a specific showcase project, but be embedded in a new way of working that prioritises the impact on global goals alongside its business objectives. 

PwC surveyed business (and citizens) to get their perspective on awareness and plans for the launch of the SDGs.  We wanted to understand their vision too.


1) Awareness: SDG awareness amongst the business community is high (92%) compared to the general population (33% Citizens aware of SDGs)

2) Responsibility: Government is seen as having prime responsibility to achieve the SDGs by business and citizens alike (49% Business responders and 44% citizens ranked government first (before business and society))

3) Action: Business has already started to take action - despite only 10% business participants ranking business with prime responsibility:

  • 71% of business say they are already planning how they will respond to the SDGs.
  • 34% of business say they have agreed their plans and/or are implementing them
  • 37% of business say they are planning their approach

 4) Gaps: There are distinct gaps in how to go about it, especially in areas where tough decisions are required:

  • Only 13% of business have identified the tools they need
  • Only 29% are setting goals

 5) Optimism: We should be optimistic that engagement will increase by 2020:

  • About one fifth of business are doing nothing right now… 22% said they were either waiting for the SDGs to be ratified or for government regulation before doing anything or thought it was the government’s responsibility not theirs
  • But, this drops to 4% when thinking about what they’ll be doing in five years.

 6) Significance: Citizens may have only a limited awareness of the SDGs but quickly recognised their significance:

  • 90% of citizens believe it is important that business signs up to the SDGs
  • 78% of citizens said they were more likely to buy the goods and services of companies that had signed up to the SDGs (increasing 90% for citizens from Latin America)

What are the implications for business and for achieving the global goals? Close to the business community, our results analysis has identified interesting insights:

Self interest driving SDG selection

Business see their greatest impact and opportunity in areas that will help drive their own business growth. When business profits from solving social problems, when it makes profit while benefitting society and business performance simultaneously, it creates solutions that are scalable. Should we question the motives of business if their activity and ingenuity works to benefit of society? Enlightened self-interest focused on the SDGs could generate tangible results. 

Sustainable development goals - Business impact and opportunity

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Business set to cherry pick the SDGs

It’s clear that business doesn’t intend to assess its impact across all the SDGs, its plan is to look at those relevant to their business or a sub set of these.  How will they choose? It’s less about picking the easiest, most obvious or positive ones, and more about picking the ones that are material to the business or have the greatest negative impact. 

Sustainable development goals - actions

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SDGs set to get left out in the cold

Some SDGs don’t make it onto the radar – business doesn’t register they have an impact on them or see an opportunity.  If business ‘cherry picks’ a small number of SDGs, some SDGs eg. SDG 14 (Life below water) will have few business driven initiatives to make change.

Sustainable development goals - Impact and opportunity matrix

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Don't forget the people perspective

Citizens get the significance of the SDGs – these are business’ employees and customers.  It’s a reason for business to take action and gives credibility to the business case.

90% of citizens think it's important that business signs up to the SDGs

78% of citizens are more likely to buy from a company signed-up to the SDGs

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Are corporates and citizens on the same wavelength

Citizens and corporates won’t be focused on the same things.   Business doesn’t see opportunity where citizens see importance – SDG 13 (Climate action) is the only SDG that features in the top five for both. 

Sustainable development goals - Business opportunity v citizen importance

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Speeding up embedding

Many businesses have already started planning for the SDGs, but ambitions for the next five years aren’t ground breaking. By 2020, only 30% expect to have identified the tools they need to assess their impact and 40% think they won’t even have identified which SDGs are relevant to their business.  But reassuringly, only 9% say they’ll be doing nothing.

Sustainable development goals - Actions (current v future)

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What business is saying about the SDGs ….

“We will study and understand the SDGs and how they have touch points and impacts on our organisation. As a socially responsible organisation, we will respond to the SDGs and apply ourselves and implement those that (1) impact the business and (2) can be most effectively implemented for the common good. A focus on local communities around the operations will be the point of departure for selected SDGs.”

Metals, Mining & Extraction company Colombia

“Fundamentally, businesses need much more support in areas including collaboration, inclusiveness, partnership building, effective communication, and the recognition/elimination of racism in all of its forms. In most respects, understanding the benefits of 'Long-Termism' as an indispensable element of the business approach that supports SDGs ... The concept of ‘Alignment of Interests’ is also a vital aspect that traditionally businesses have struggled to support their business objectives.”

Asset Manager Italy

“[We need] clarity on the regulatory and legal roadmap Governments plan to implement to support the SDGs. Businesses want as much certainty in their business environments so that they can plan their contributions and how they impact the SDGs. Too much uncertainty and variability in the regulatory and legal regimes increases business risk and stifles innovation and longer term thinking.”

Communications company France

Contact us

Louise Scott
Director, Global Sustainability, PwC United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)7734 958 942

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