How can businesses drive engagement around the UN SDGs?

Luminous was delighted to recently host the fourth event in our #illumination series: ‘The UN SDGs and business – insufficient progress, but is it too late?’ The session covered the critical role that businesses can play in delivering peace and prosperity by aligning with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how best to communicate their SDG story.


Endorsed by all UN Member States in 2015, the SDGs focus global efforts and attention under 17 global Goals. These SDGs are the UN’s ‘universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity’, and are supported by 169 targets covering a broad range of sustainable development issues. Goals range from achieving good health and wellbeing, decent work and economic growth to reduced inequalities and climate action, to name just four commonly referenced SDGs.

Businesses as essential players

Steve Kenzie, Executive Director, UN Global Compact Network UK, spoke powerfully about the importance of the SDGs as a means of addressing some of the greatest social and environmental challenges we face. Businesses cannot thrive in a world of poverty, inequality, unrest and environmental stress, so they have a vital interest and role to play in ensuring that these Goals are delivered. The private sector plays a critical role in providing solutions that can contribute to solving these challenges, while also generating new business opportunities. A recent review of the UK Government’s progress in achieving the SDGs found that we are only performing well on 24% of the relevant targets, highlighting the long road that is still ahead. With an achievement deadline of 2030, fulfilling this ambition will require action on many disparate fronts.

The case is clear

A plethora of benefits await businesses that commit meaningfully to the SDGs, including:

  • increased attractiveness to investors and customers
  • improved competitiveness in hiring the best human capital
  • easing access to public procurement and investment.

On a macro scale, the commitment to SDGs will result in a better-educated and more productive workforce, economic and political stability, more fair and just societies and climate resilience. Basically, the case for adopting SDGs is indisputable. The Business & Sustainable Development Commission found that embracing the Global Goals could generate at least US$12 trillion of new business value by 2030 – equivalent to 10% of global GDP forecast.

Navigating the landscape

The SDG compass was presented as a guide for companies on how they can align their strategies as well as measure and manage their contribution to the realisation of the SDGs. This comprises five steps that assist companies in maximising their contribution to the SDGs:

  1. Understand the SDGs in a business context.
  2. Define priority action areas.
  3. Set SDG-related goals.
  4. Integrate these goals into core corporate functions.
  5. Report and communicate progress against the SDG agenda.

Tackling the reporting challenge

Luminous’ own James Whittingham, Senior Sustainability Consultant, picked up the reporting baton, discussing how to avoid the pitfalls of SDG reporting and communicate a strong story. A 2018 survey by PwC elucidated the challenges in SDG reporting: while 72% of companies mention the SDGs in their reporting, only 50% of companies selected priority SDGs and only 23% disclosed meaningful KPIs.

Companies should also be mindful of not ‘rainbow washing’. A business that claims to be tackling all 17 Goals is probably being unrealistic and at risk of being seen as inauthentic. Businesses need to look carefully at corporate objectives, targets and KPIs, and performance data to ensure there is a coherent narrative. Tangible contributions to support the SDGs are the best way to demonstrate commitment and be transparent, and organisations need to remember to look below the surface of the Goals and see how the supporting targets resonate as well.

Top tips to tell a better story

Outline your most material SDGs

Explain which SDGs resonate with your business and why. Simply presenting the logos is not sufficient! Outline how you have identified and prioritised the SDGs, and explain which SDGs resonate with your business and why.

Outline your contribution – now and looking forward

Disclosure around the SDGs should create a narrative not only about what your business has done to make a contribution but, just as importantly, about the ‘why’. You need to communicate your level of ambition and how you will make future tangible contributions to play your part in delivering these commitments by 2030. Link your SDGs to your strategy to really embed these.

Use the SDGs as a means to engage stakeholders – internal and external

Once a business determines which Goals it is working towards, and how their impact will be measured, there is an opportunity to use them as an employee and wider stakeholder engagement tool. The Goals can become a rallying cry for engagement, education and awareness.

Create impact through good design

Imaginative design can bring your brand to life, convey your key messages and tell your story in a visually engaging way. An organisation’s annual, sustainability or integrated report is an ideal platform to visually engage and inspire its readers and stakeholders. Increasingly, moving image, interactive employee campaigns and social media platforms are used to create the call to action.

The Luminous view

According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, trust in business in the UK stands at a low 43%. The SDGs represent an opportunity for corporates to demonstrate that they are no longer the problem but are now part of the solution; contributing to solving the world’s most pressing environmental, social and economic challenges. Creating long-term, shared value, restoring trust and building advocacy with the stakeholders who grant businesses their licence to operate is a win–win for all parties.

If you would like to know more about how your organisation can integrate SDGs into your reporting and communications, please get in touch at