25 September 2018

Research Dutch businesses: Sustainable Development Goals scarcely integrated in business strategies

Today, three years ago, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) were implemented by the United Nations. Dutch companies involve these ‘Global Goals’ only limited in their strategy development process. This is the result of a research that has been conducted the last couple of months by consultancy firm Sustainalize in collaboration with Tilburg University. Over the years, businesses have become well aware of the SDG’s and the goals are often used as a tool for communication.

“After three years of getting acquainted with the SDG’s, now is the perfect time to integrate the SDG’s in the strategy development process”, say researchers Rob van Tilburg and Chiara Zeeuw of Sustainalize. “Definitely with the year 2020 in view, which has been used by many businesses as an end for current strategies, make upcoming strategy revisions an excellent opportunity to give the SDG’s a full-fledged place.”

On September 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals were launched by the United Nations: 17 development goals focused on worldwide social challenges. Sustainalize researched if and how large Dutch businesses involve the SDG’s in their strategy development and if the SDG’s are integrated in the business strategy. No fewer than 168 companies responded to a survey that was sent out. Also, 15 in-depth interviews were held with companies, including Unilever, AkzoNobel, DSM, Interface, FrieslandCampina, KPN, Heineken, Bavaria, ABN AMRO, Rabobank, ING Bank and ASN Bank.

The research shows that the SDG’s are now widely known: 93% of the businesses indicate to be familiar with the SDG’s. At first, 59% of them indicate that they have also actually included the SDG’s within their strategy development.

However, the interviews show that this primarily means that companies report on how they contribute to the realization of the SDG’s. “That has a risk of the SDG’s being used to describe the status quo, while they have been developed to achieve real acceleration on these goals”, explains Rob van Tilburg. “After this period of getting acquainted with the SDG’s, the key question should be: how can we involve the SDG’s in business strategies in order to contribute to the realisation with strategic choices and innovations.”

The fact that the SDG’s have not yet been translated into business strategies can also be explained by the fact that the goals are only three years old. Not all companies have reviewed their strategy during this period. This research highlights several factors that would promote the strategic implementation of the SDG’s:

  • Integrate the SDG’s into business strategy training courses and strategy models.
  • Explore whether the extent to which large companies perform on the SDG’s can get a place in (government) tenders
  • Provide clear insights of successful examples in the business world, with the emphasis not only on reporting on SDG’s but especially on how the SDG’s can be integrated into the strategy of businesses.
  • Collaborate with organisations within and outside your sector. Innovation is essential for achieving the SDG’s and this can result into surprising solutions beneficial for society and organisations.
  • During the integration, keep in mind the mutual coherence of all the SDG’s in order to minimize negative impact and maximize positive impact. The SDG’s are in fact a coherent as a whole. If a business ignores the overlaps and simply does not, independently or one by one, check off the SDG’s it risks unwanted negative outcomes.