Why this first week of 2020 proves we need a ‘year of action’ more than ever

With ten years left until the deadline for accomplishing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we hope that 2020 will be the year of action – to kick start a decade for delivery.

Greta Thunberg changed her twitter handle to Sharon after an episode of Celebrity Mastermind

By the time this blog is published we will have lived our first week of this actionable year; a week where there is fire tearing through Australia twice the size of Belgium, Qasem Soleimani has been killed by the US and Greta Thunberg has changed her twitter handle to Sharon.

To say that the world is unpredictable is true but also implies that we are bystanders to this whirlwind day in age, whereas more than ever it truly is everyone’s responsibility to act and make meaningful change. We need this to be a year of tangible action that will set the course for us to achieve the SDGs, before the damage is irreversible.

But civil society has got this covered, right?

Grassroots activists, community groups, non-governmental organisations – civil society is formed, created and driven by the issues it seeks to resolve. The involvement of civil society is critical in achieving the SDGs because of their deep issue knowledge and connections to the frontline. However, this does not fall on them solely to resolve.

Their role is as consultants, advocates, implementers, and to hold all other actors to account. Civil society can use its experience and knowledge to add a vital level of scrutiny to ensure money, attention and action is applied where needed.

So how do we get change?

Author’s dream Yucca

We all know that change can’t happen without buy-in. It doesn’t matter whether that’s trying to convince your partner that another house plant is 100% necessary so that you can fully live your dream as a plantrent or persuading your board of directors that a 4-day working week is the way to go. This is the same for the SDGs.

We live in a four-dimensional world that is layered with complexity and one that is trying to achieve 17 goals, with 169 accompanying targets. We are all invested in the outcome of the SDGs succeeding and therefore we should all be involved in some way, shape or form.

Individuals alone cannot make a change – I alone will not be able to sneak in a 5ft Yucca Elephantipes into my one bed flat in London – there needs to be systematic buy in.

Those who have the biggest influence on the outcome – businesses

Governments around the world have the ultimate responsibility for delivering on the SDGs but the reality is that we live in a capitalist society so, therefore, to make real systematic change we need business involvement and proper action. In fact, when in 2015 the goals were planned and agreed to by all UN Member States, the support of businesses was fundamental in achieving them.

So far, not so great.

In December 2019, PwC’s annual assessment of public reporting on the SDGs concluded that there is still a great deal of work to be done if business is to contribute meaningfully to efforts. One US news outlet called corporate social responsibility ‘2019’s second-biggest sham’ (the first was reserved for US President Trump).

PwC’s Creating a strategy for a better world

But all is not lost – progress has and is being made.

There are already some big businesses who are recognising the need for purpose over profit in order to achieve the SDGs: JetBlue, IKEA and Orbia Advance Corp. Orbia is an industrial products firm with operations in 41 countries. In September 2019 it announced along with its new founded purpose, that it would be ‘using its expertise tackle some of the planet’s biggest existential challenges like water scarcity and making cities more liveable’.

There are young and progressive organisations such as Skating Panda’s client, the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA), who believe there needs to be real change in the way that businesses’ impact is measured. This, in turn, will boost motivation and stimulate action for a sustainable future for everyone. The WBA have developed benchmarks that compare businesses’ performance on the SDGs.

These benchmarks are backed by science while leveraging existing international norms and standards. They aim to empower all stakeholders, from consumers and investors to employees and business leaders, with key data and insights to encourage sustainable business practices across all sectors. The benchmarks’ methodologies will also be free to use and continually improved through an ongoing and open multi-stakeholder dialogue.

Core to WBA’s mission is working alongside the private sector, harnessing the knowledge, networks and influence of partners and allies, to become a critical friend that holds businesses to account whilst offering a helping hand through a roadmap that has been created with the industries it hopes to help.

At Davos this year the WBA will be putting 2,000 of the world’s most influential companies on notice that they will be benchmarked against the SDGs. The list of 2000 companies shows how the private sector has a role to play in fulfilling the SDGs, as some companies have disproportionate influence and impact. Key to the list’s publication will be the invitation for those 2,000 companies to engage with the WBA – “help us, help you” – and the offer to work with the WBA to refine the benchmarks so that they can be truly meaningful.

But what can I do? The case for individual action

protest sign says 'the power of the people is stronger than the people in power'
Source unknown

As individuals, we should be demanding more from those that we buy from, work for and who dictate the policies that will affect our lives.

But there are meaningful actions that we can take as a consumer, employees and users of media too:

  • As a consumer how and where you spend your money, time and attention will affect what is produced. Unilever recently revealed that it will cut plastic use to appeal to Gen Z. This is a firm that is responsible for producing 700,000 tonnes of new plastic a year that is changing its whole manufacturing process in a bid to attract younger shoppers.
  • If you’ve read any of Skating Panda’s other blogs you’ll know that we are big advocates on the power of purpose. As employees, as colleagues you can push for your business to dig deep into defining its purpose – it’s reason for existing that is beyond profit. More and more people are deciding who they want to work for based on whether that business is making a positive impact in the world.
  • If you work in a client services industry, like we do, we need to continue having brave conversations, pushing back on briefs that are (often unintentionally) continuing to harm or not going far enough to address a problem. We would also flag that, if you can, join the Purpose Disrupters, whose goal is to create a bottom-up movement within the advertising industry.
  • As users of media, we can apply critical thought to what we read, pushing for more truthful reporting but also deciding what outlets we will and won’t consume.

Time to act

We cannot deny that some progress has been made on all fronts, however, we are a long way off being on track to achieving the SDGs. We need to be realistic about the change that needs to happen at all levels for real tangible action to take place.

Now is the time to act, we are not bystanders and it certainly isn’t up to anyone else to do this for us. We all have a role, especially as business leaders, and as individuals we all have the potential to be our very own Sharons during this ‘year of action’ too.

Charlotte Highmore, Strategist, Skating Panda