The UN Sustainable Development Goals: For the Common Good
As a philosophy, the notion of the ‘common good’ dates back to ancient Greek philosophers as well as Enlightenment-era thinkers theorizing how an ideal society should strategically shape the communal welfare of all. This philosophy has influenced hundreds of years of social reforms, government policy and economic development. Toward the end of the 20th century, the United Nations (UN) worked to establish international objectives relating to economic development and environmental sustainability. In the commission’s forward-thinking 1987 report entitled “Our Common Future,” sustainable business practices became linked to achieving the greater mission of the common good.
Achieving the UN SDGs
Thirty years later, the findings were revisited and codified into the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Truly international in scope, these 17 objectives would accelerate sustainable development through an unconventional combination of policy, NGO support and the innovation of a global, digital economy. It was time that the private sector reimagined a visionary and transformative future through sustainable development.
One of the initial concerns about the UN SDGs is that they advocate for economic growth alongside sustainability and social impact improvement. Many economic commentators have considered this a paradoxical issue; however, businesses that center sustainability and social impact as a central part of their business model could be a way forward. Sustainable development through social impact business has great potential to foster profitability and the common good side-by-side. Businesses of any size were encouraged by the UN to consider how core business functions affected the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to adjust their practices to be more sustainable and ignite positive social change before 2030. In addition to businesses, other organizations such as higher education institutions shaped their curriculums and campus operations to also influence these Sustainable Development Goals and begin contributing to the common good.
What is Needed to Achieve Sustainable Development?
While collective commitment to adjusting core business functions is one aspect of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, there are also an abundance of practical solutions needed to achieve sustainable development, including a focus on core business functions, systemic change in particularly harmful industries and a broader consideration of risk management
One brilliant difference of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is their emphasis on core business functions. Many metrics related to corporate social responsibility and sustainability focus on factors related to corporate philanthropy or “greenwashing” tactics designed to change public perception about a company, which are unlikely to bring about the influential change needed to
make sustainable development serve the mission of the common good.
Tangible steps that connect the company’s interest with sustainable development measures include:
- Participating in circular supply chains, where materials are most efficiently recycled so that minimal virgin material is used, which reduces waste and costs
- Taking a precautionary risk management approach to environmental damages, sparing the company from costly legal battles and public relations issues
- Labor practices that do not harm the workforce or the environment that they live in which ensures a stable, healthy labor pool
- Considering the social impact of investments or partnerships alongside their profitability, which is prudent risk management
Achieving the UN SDGs will require more investment, more innovative technology, and most importantly strong leadership ready to shape core business functions to be more focused on the common good. By inciting authentic and systemic change, the business sector will lead the way forward in achieving sustainable development.