Companies and SDGs, together for a sustainable future

May 05, 2021 | written by:

How (and why) the private sector can contribute to achieving the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals.

In 2015, the United Nations defined seventeen sustainable development macro-goals aimed at transforming the world and solving many of the problems that threaten our future. These goals, often referred to as SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), include access to water and energy, environmental protection, the fight against poverty, hunger and climate change, the importance of promoting initiatives aimed at creating decent jobs, the need to stimulate inclusive and sustainable economic growth, the promotion of social and gender equality, justice and peace. All challenges that concern both institutions and businesses. 

In fact, as former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasised, achieving the goals requires a contribution from the public sector and also the private sector, adding that the SDGs represent an enormous development opportunity for companies that can propose sustainable solutions to concrete problems. Because only through a holistic approach which considers the problems as a whole, one interconnected with the other, will it be possible to act concretely for the good of the planet and those who inhabit it.

To better understand the potential contributions and opportunities for individual companies in achieving the SDGs, let’s see some cases goal by goal.

SDG 01: No poverty

End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

In 2014, MasterCard launched the MasterCard Labs for Financial Inclusion, a global innovation lab designed to stimulate the economy in East Africa. 

SDG 02: Zero hunger

End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Winner of the UNWTO SDGs Global Startup Competition, Ifarm Agritech is a Kenyan startup that has developed urban agriculture technologies allowing anyone to grow fresh vegetables, berries and edible flowers for personal or commercial use.

SDG 03: Good health and well-being

Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

Volvo is one of the companies most involved in promoting and supporting the SDGs. The goals adopted by the Swedish company also include health and well-being, with a particular commitment to goal 3.6: Halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents.

SDG 04: Quality education

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

The promotion of quality education is also one of the SDGs adopted by LEGO. Through Lego Foundation initiatives and Lego Education products, the Danish company promotes the value of learning through play to give children the opportunity to develop their creativity and love for learning.

SDG 05: Gender equality

Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Regarding gender equality, more and more companies are implementing initiatives aimed at achieving equality and stimulating the empowerment of women in the workplace, including the leading group in the Advertising, PR and Market Research sector WPP which in 2021, for the third consecutive year, was included in the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index (GEI) for its commitment to promoting policies aimed at transparency and promoting gender equality.

SDG 06: Clean water and sanitation

Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

The shoe company TOMS owes part of its success and renown to the originality of its business model, which it has called One for One®: for every pair of shoes it sells, TOMS helps someone in need. Over the years, the American company has applied this model to all its products, donating shoes, eye exams and drinking water. In the context of water availability, since 2014 TOMS Roasting Co® has helped guarantee 722,000 weeks of clean water for those who need it.

SDG 07: Affordable and clean energy

Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

Until electricity is 100% derived from renewable sources, producing it will continue to have a significant impact on the environment. For this reason, many companies are making important strategic choices to reduce CO2 production. They include Apple, which has committed to making its products entirely with clean energy by 2030.

SDG 08: Decent work and economic growth

Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

The fashion brand Everlane has made the sustainability of its production one of its main competitive advantages. In fact, since its inception it has only collaborated with ethical and certified companies that guarantee decent working conditions and use sustainable materials.

SDG 09: Industry, innovation and infrastructure

Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.

In 2014 H&M, in collaboration with the Swedish financial institution Swedfund, financed the development of a sustainable textile industry in Ethiopia with high social and environmental standards. The aim was to help develop the country’s textile industry and create guaranteed jobs that could help people out of poverty, with particular attention to women.

SDG 10: Reduced inequalities

Reduce inequality within and among countries.

Starbucks has taken several initiatives to make the development of its business more sustainable, both in production and in the company’s internal organisation. Over the years it has promoted various strategies to reduce inequalities, including hiring Nzinga Shaw as Global Chief Inclusion & Diversity Officer in 2019. 

SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities

Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

The American multinational investment bank Citi is a partner of the global network C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and offers cities financial and advisory support to tackle climate change.

SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production

Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

With a view to circular economy and more sustainable consumption models, Ikea has launched the “Ikea Buy Back” initiative which allows used Ikea products to be put back on the market.

SDG 13: Climate action

Take urgent measures to combat climate change and its impacts.

One of the sectors that produce the highest CO₂ emissions is air transport. For this reason, many airlines are promoting initiatives aimed at reducing their environmental impact. For example, since 2008 Virgin Atlantic has reduced ground energy use by 47% and CO₂e emissions by 66%.

SDG 14: Life below water

Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

Swiss Re, the world’s largest insurer, is partnering with The Nature Conservancy and Mexico’s regional governments to help protect the Mesoamerican reef off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.

SDG 15: Life on land

Protect the ecosystem and the earth.

More and more companies are helping to reforest the planet through CO₂ compensation initiatives which plant new trees in Italy and other parts of the world. Timberland wants to plant 50 million trees within 2025.

SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions

Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Both Airbnb and one of its co-founders, Joe Gebbia, have promoted various initiatives to support inclusive hospitality projects. Gebbia by donating $25 million to two San Francisco organisations that work with the homeless (Rising Up Larkin Street Youth Services and All Home), Airbnb through projects like OpenHomes which offers free temporary housing to those who need a place to sleep.

SDG 17: Partnership for the goals

Strengthen and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development.

In 2019, Amazon helped found the Climate Pledge, a commitment to achieving zero CO₂ emissions across its entire business by 2040. This agreement has also been signed in partnership by many other companies, including Uber Technologies Inc and JetBlue Airways Corp.

Whether through partnerships as in the case of H&M and Swedfund, by rethinking a production chain as with Everlane, or by launching new initiatives like Ikea Buy Back, today making a concrete commitment to contribute to the SDGs is a valid strategy not only for the planet’s future but also for that of your company. Each entrepreneur or manager can choose which of the seventeen goals are most in line with their own business and their company’s values and concretely commit themselves to implementing them every day.


Jacopo Perfetti, Fellow professor SDA Bocconi

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