“SDG” Is Just An Acronym

Acronyms are where words go to die. There has to be a better way for companies to talk about their sustainability journeys.

Many global businesses use the UN’s SDG’s as drivers of their sustainability comms. There must be a better way to narrate their journeys.

The Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the UN’s members in 2015 as the areas in need of change in order to live up to its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They cover everything from ending poverty (SDG #1) and achieving gender equality (SDG #5), to making cities inclusive and safe (SDG #11) and ensuring affordable and sustainable water (SDG #6) and energy (SDG #7) for all.

Where are we now, five years later and a third of the way closer to the 2030 deadline? Last time I checked, the planet is on fire, societies are in chaos, and nations are cooperating less than ever before.

You wouldn’t know this from the reporting of large global businesses, however. Progress is being made on all 17 SDGs, and there are percentages and cartoony infographics to prove those accomplishments. Heart-tugging personal story vignettes often accompany this reporting.

The result is a huge gap between what we’re being told and what we see around us.

I’m not questioning the work itself, which is both real and absolutely necessary; rather, it’s how companies talk about it, and there are three reasons why referencing SDGs doesn’t help their case:

First, I’d wager that most people don’t even know what they are.

Acronyms are where words go to die. They’re secret code, meaningful only to the initiated in the way that EBITDA has meaning for accountants (or OPS screams importance to baseball fans). Acronyms are the labels for diseases and spy agencies.

Specific to SDGs, we Americans can easily mistake the acronym for “STP,” which is either an oil additive or 90’s grunge band, depending on your age.

It’s impossible to make progress against an acronym that has no meaning for most of your public stakeholders. No handful of letters can bestow an imprimatur of legitimacy.

My experience is that the real measures for any sustainability initiative are a company’s performance metrics, in that companies need to show that doing good is good business. But more on that in a bit…

Second, most people (at least most Americans) don’t know or care about the UN, and many who do are critics.

I lived in NYC in the 1980’s and I can tell you that we were blissfully unaware that the UN was headquartered there. We all knew where Wall Street was located and that it was very important. My only memories related to the UN are of limos with diplomatic license plates parking where others couldn’t.

More broadly, many Americans aren’t big fans of global cooperation. We refused to sign up for the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, and we ended up hosting the UN because we were pretty much the only economy left standing after WWII.

We are its largest single source of funds, though not out of any sense of altruism. A world that doesn’t blow itself up is good for American interests, and an entity that often (though inconsistently) support ours interests is a good thing in practice, even if we don’t approve of its existence in principle.

Nobody has ever bothered to explain that to us, however, so lots of us default to our genetic distrust of overseers (of any ilk). We’re also predisposed to believe in wild conspiracy theories, so the premise that some supposed world government and its bureaucrats are going to tell us what to do is, well, just un-American.

Being seen as doing its bidding is probably not the best PR strategy, even if they’re right.

Third, the SDGs are insanely beyond the reach of anyone’s imagination, let alone our ability to achieve them.

I mean, really, 17 commandments? God only needed 10. Net Promoter Scores require three. Showing up in court requires one.

The totality of some of the SDG goals (like eradicating hunger) are only matched by the vagueness of others (such as “decent” work for all). Maybe that’s why there are an endless array of summits, conferences, agendas, frameworks, and reports produced in support of them; the UN’s website lists “960 Events, 1205 Publications, 5132 Partnerships, and 174 Targets.”

Again, I’m willing to believe that its architects are all principled, well-intentioned individuals, but whatever positive change they enable is buried under whatever next round of blather they’re publishing or promoting. There’s no way to reach some of the goals and no way to objectively know we’ve reached others.

The cynic in me sees it as a full-employment program for bureaucrats, along with the “public interest” groups that track the SDGs and the corporate communicators held accountable for reporting against them.

And the world continues to burn.

What could sustainability comms look like instead? Well, for starters, it would avoid references to global-level measures and look closer to home. The actions of even the biggest companies represent a drop in the bucket against worldwide numbers. Take it as a given that a business supports the UN’s SDG goals. It’s like stating that you believe in happiness.

Instead, look to metrics on actual business performance and set goals based on the contexts of the communities in which you operate.

Dare to swap a happy infographic for a comprehensible statement of activity, like expressing your carbon emissions not in metric tonnes or as a percentage of some exotic global number, but in a commonly-understood analogy, like “we kept X number of Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with soot from entering the atmosphere.”

Risk telling the truth about what you’re doing wrong as well as right; the journey to sustainability isn’t made up only of positive steps but rather lots of difficult and nuanced trade offs. And failures. And imperfect solutions. And more work to be done.

Dare to address the trade offs, especially those in customer experience (including pricing), as well as the detrimental impacts progress in one area might have on another. Educate your stakeholders on what your progress means for product updates, durability, your profits, etc. Make them participants in your journey, not just spectators.

Dare to acknowledge what people can see with their own eyes, and craft your comms to talk to them about it, and not about SDGs.

Ultimately, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will end in disappointment, as no goals will be met completely. Another plan will be announced, perhaps targeting 2045, and certainly another round of SDGs (perhaps more of them) and a new array of meetings and papers.

Supporting the spirit of those efforts is spot on, but focusing your comms on your business and you efforts to reach your own goals, and not those labeled with the UN’s acronym, is the better way to narrate your sustainability journey.

By Jonathan Salem Baskin

I'm a writer, musician, and science junkie.

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