How Businesses Can Help Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

The year 2015 can be considered a watershed year in sustainability. In 2015, the United Nations came up with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. In the same year, the COP21 conference in Paris created a comprehensive and binding agreement to address climate change. Both the SDGs and the Paris Agreement called for the integration of sustainability measures into business operations and government policies, as well as stakeholder involvement in the planning and implementation of sustainability measures.

Since businesses and non-governmental organizations participated in framing the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, it signifies their commitment to supporting them. There is a recognition by these stakeholders that resource conservation and reduction leads to business continuity, and an organization that is committed to sustainability is more credible in the eyes of consumers.

While businesses and other organizations are helping achieve the SDGs, below are a few examples across 6 of the 17 SDGs:

Alleviate Poverty and Hunger

SDGs 1 and 2 are “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” and “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” According to the United Nations, 836 million people continue to live in extreme poverty. In addition, about one in five people in the developing world lives on less than USD 1.25 a day. An estimated 795 million people in the world today are undernourished. Malnutrition kills 3.1 million children under the age of five each year.

Poverty can trigger a variety of social problems such as hunger, malnutrition, lack of access to basic social services and social exclusion. A lack of stable income can lead to the inability to buy food, which may result in malnutrition. The effects of malnutrition can include stunted growth, poor health and impaired mental function. The shortage of knowledgeable and able-bodied people can undermine the efficiency of businesses.

Johnson & Johnson partnered with Freedom from Hunger and Microcredit Summit in order to help Indian women lift themselves and their families out of poverty through microfinance, financial literacy training, and health education and services. Understanding that providing women with microloans is not enough — emergencies like a sick child or a death in the family can cripple a thriving small business — Johnson and Johnson’s employees volunteer to hold health education sessions in India’s low-income communities. Life-saving health knowledge and services prevent illnesses, accidents and death in poor families. When illnesses, accidents and deaths are prevented, women can focus on growing their businesses, enabling them to earn and save more for their families.

Promote Quality Education

SDG 4 is “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.” Although primary school enrollment in developing countries is now at 91 percent, there are still 57 million out-of-school children, approximately 50 percent of whom are out due to crises and conflict. There are about 103 million illiterate young people globally, 60 percent of whom are women.

One economic cost of illiteracy is poverty. On average, illiterate people earn 30 to 40 percent less than their literate counterparts. Moreover, the income of illiterate people usually remains the same throughout their working lives because they do not have the literacy skills required to undergo training that will help them improve their earning capacity.

Illiteracy’s other economic tolls include reduced employee productivity and lower profits for businesses. Employees with poor literacy skills are more likely to make work-related mistakes because of their inability to read or understand instructions. This can lead to a wide range of problems, such as time and money wasted in fixing incorrect orders or processing refunds; lost customers due to miscommunication; internal conflicts because of misunderstandings; or work-related injuries from misunderstanding or not reading instructions.

More vulnerable than the illiterate are those who are both illiterate and disabled. With their conditions, disabled people are often at greater risk of poverty and illiteracy than those that are not disabled. Businesses can help reverse this trend by promoting literacy and breaking the educational and employment barriers that disabled illiterate people face.

Livox is a mobile application that helps disabled people read, write and speak, created by Carlos Edmar Pereira, a Brazilian inventor who has a young daughter with cerebral palsy. Livox’s algorithms include Smart Diagnosis (which adjusts the app’s settings to the user’s disability); IntelliTouch (which minimizes errors by adjusting the touch to the user’s disability); and IntelliKeyboard (an intelligent virtual keyboard that speaks words, phrases and sentences). Moreover, Livox can be operated even without Internet connection, making learning very easy and convenient for disabled people. Livox has won the following awards: the World Summit Award’s “World's Best Social Inclusion Application,” the Inter-American Development Bank’s “Technological Innovation with the Greatest Impact in 2014” and the “Winner of the World Cup Tech, Microsoft.”

Advocate for Gender Equality

SDG 5 is “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” Poverty alleviation, food security and quality education cannot be achieved if women and girls are treated unfairly on the basis of their gender. Worldwide, almost 15 million girls under 18 are married every year―a figure that translates to 37,000 girls daily. An estimated 62 million girls across the globe are denied an education. In 2015, 77 percent of men and only 50 percent of women constituted the world’s working-age labor force.

With gender inequality, women are vulnerable to poverty, exploitation and abuse. Women in full-time jobs still earn 23 percent less than men. Girls make up 4 out of 5 human trafficking victims, and at least 125 million girls and women are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). Globally, women aged 15-44 are more likely to die of gender-based violence than of cancer, malaria, war and car accidents. When women are poor, exploited and abused, they acquire limited skills and opportunities to expand the economy and promote social development.

Unilever implemented several policies and training programs that are geared towards the empowerment of women. In Canada, the company holds “speed mentoring” sessions, in which senior leaders give key career advice to female employees. In Sri Lanka, Unilever conducts Women-Inspire-Connect-Empower (WICE), a networking event that provides professional development and support to women workers. At Hindustan Unilever, women employees have the flexibility to adjust their working days and hours to coincide with their personal needs. Unilever Brazil offers three to six months’ maternity leave benefits, as well as daycare centers in the company’s central offices.

As a result of these policies and training programs, Unilever is succeeding in promoting gender balance. The number of women in its management rose from 38 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in 2015. Unilever was included in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2014 and 2015, and made it to the top ten FTSE 100 for female inclusion on boards.

Provide Opportunities for Decent Work and Economic Growth

SDG 8 is “Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.” According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), unemployment for 2016 is expected to rise by about 2.3 million to 199.4 million. By 2017, unemployment is predicted to increase by another 1.1 million. The United Nations added that the world needs 470 million jobs for new entrants into the job market between 2016 and 2030.

If left unchecked, unemployment can spur social instability. The absence of decent means of livelihood can force people to turn to crime to survive which, in turn, can render a location unsuitable for business. Threats of crime and violence can lower employee productivity if employees get injured or killed in criminal attacks, as well as force investors to move their businesses to safer locations. These conditions further perpetuate the cycle of unemployment and crime.

For the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), sustainable crops, or “pulses”, provide opportunities for decent work and economic growth. They require less water and are more drought-tolerant than major staple grains like wheat or canola. Pulses also add large amounts of nitrogen to the soil, reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizers. Given the sustainability of pulses, even poor farmers can easily grow them, resulting in stable livelihoods and additional income without having to resort to illegal activity.

From May 30 to June 3, 2016, FAO held a pulses market in the garden of its headquarters in Rome, Italy. This pulses market displayed pulse-based produces from family farming enterprises belonging to the World Farmers’ Organization. According to Eduardo Mansur, head of FAO’s land and water division, “Pulses are good for people, and are good for soils.”

Develop Partnerships with Like-Minded Organizations

SDG 17 is “Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.” Sustainable development is achieved faster and easier when all stakeholders are involved. Governments, the private sector and civil society can pool resources, manpower and ideas to create and implement effective sustainable development initiatives. When all stakeholders take part, the initiatives outlast management and regime changes.

The Global CEO Alliance (GCEOA) is a coalition of business leaders that uses impact investing as a means of achieving the SDGs. Through the GCEOA, businesses can partner with governments and civil society to develop innovative solutions to attain the SDGs. GCEOA partners can choose which SDG they wish to help achieve, and then find a Development Partner with whom they will work in a GCEOA Project. Such partnerships ensure that institutions of varying sizes and geographical scope can work together to address various economic, social and environmental issues.

In September 2016, the Global Agri-business Alliance (GAA) was launched in Singapore. The GAA is a coalition of 36 leading agribusinesses that are committed to attaining the SDGs. The GAA will focus specifically on ending hunger and achieving food security, as well as improving nutrition and sustainable agriculture. The GAA will accomplish these objectives by improving rural livelihoods and mitigating climate risks affecting agricultural supply chains.

Sustainability: A Community Effort

When closely evaluated, both the SDGs and COP21 operate on the same premise: sustainability is a community effort. Sustainability issues affect all members of a community, and everyone in the community should do their part in addressing these. Included in this community are businesses, and helping achieve the SDGs is a worthy investment for them. Achieving the SDGs equates to a healthier and more competent workforce, which results in businesses operating more efficiently and profitably, as well as being role models to other organizations and consumers committed to promoting social welfare and development.


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