Oct 7, 2021
For every organization embodying sustainability and environmentalism to the core, there are a bunch more taking advantage of the increased marketing opportunities related to sustainability, without actually doing the work behind the words.
In 2015, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. These 17 integrated goals cover a wide agenda, from eliminating poverty, to protecting the environment, to promoting gender equality, and more. Many organizations are actively working towards achieving the SDGs, by using the Goals as a framework to shape, steer, and communicate business activities and strategies.
Here are all 17 SDGs:
Source: the United Nations
Consumers increasingly demand sustainable action. Deloitte found that 65% of consumers are willing to spend more for a product if it was produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way. While consumer pressure has swayed many companies to take meaningful action, it has also given rise to a new form of deceptive advertising: SDG washing.
To help your company avoid falling victim, we will be breaking down what the term means and five tips to avoid SDG washing!
What is SDG washing?
To understand and avoid SDG washing, you need to first understand an older concept, namely Greenwashing. A company is said to "greenwash" when it spends money and resources marketing itself as environmentally-friendly while spending only a fraction of that amount on actually lowering its environmental impacts. The term emerged in 1986. Back then, consumers didn’t have the fact-checking abilities that the internet allows us today. While greenwashing has morphed over the last 35 years, there is no question that it is still very prevalent.
Along similar lines, the SDGs have given way to SDG washing. There are two generally-accepted definitions of SDG washing.
The first is that SDG washing occurs when a company markets its positive contribution to some of the SDGs while ignoring its negative impact on others. For example, a clothing company may capitalize on good press from announcing that it now uses 100% organic cotton in its garments while at the same time keeping quiet about using child labor in its supply chain.
The second defintion of SDG washing is that it occurs when a company talks about its commitment to promoting the achievement of the SDGs but doesn't have any data to back up its claims. The company may be reporting actions that supposedly contribute to the achievement of SDGs but the reported activities are unrelated, have only minimal impact, or are part of the company’s regular activities.
How to avoid SDG washing
So now that we’ve gone over SDG washing, you may be thinking, "I don’t want to do that! How can my organization avoid SDG washing?" Don’t fret, here are five tips on how to avoid SDG washing:
Align your activities to specific SDG targets
Set goals and action plans for improvement
Be prepared to change your business model and strategies
Don’t cherry-pick SDGs to report on
Use transparent data-reporting practices
1. Align your activities to specific SDG targets
Rather than aligning your sustainability efforts and activities to the 17 overarching SDGs, align them with the targets instead.
Under the 17 SDGs are 169 targets and under those targets are another 231 associated indicators to measure their achievement. The targets break the SDGs into the specific aspects of each goal. The indicators provide concrete metrics, allowing you to measure whether your organization is actually making a difference with regards to the particular SDG.
For instance, SDG 5 is Gender Equality. This goal sounds pretty broad. After all, there are all sorts of ways we experience gender inequality and improving equality in one area does not mean that we have magically achieved true gender equality. So how can you be sure your organization promotes gender equality? By assessing your efforts in the context of the SDG targets and indicators.
The UN has broken SDG 5 into nine targets. SDG 5 target 5 is to "Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life." How is that measured? One indicator is by the proportion of women holding managerial positions.
Here is an opportunity for your organization to have a real impact in helping to achieve one of the SDGs. By aligning your activities to the specific targets of the SDGs, you can ensure that the actions you are taking are actually contributing towards the achievement of the overarching goals and avoid SDG washing in the process.
2. Set goals and action plans for improvement
Let’s continue with the previous example. Now you know that one way to assess gender equality in your organization is by looking at the proportion of women in managerial positions - what's next? First, you should assess the current gender ratios in your organization’s management and then set goals to improve them.
But setting the goal isn’t enough if you're going to avoid SDG washing - you also need an action plan. If you are shocked by how few women hold managerial positions in your company, chances are there are systemic hurdles and glass ceilings preventing more women from advancing to leadership roles. Assess the potential causes and then come up with concrete action steps for closing the gender imbalance.
Your organization should do the same for the other 17 SDGs. Of course, some will be more relevant to your company than others, but it is worth it to take a hard look at whether any changes in your current practices can help you achieve them.
3. Be prepared to change your business model and strategies
Many companies take a look at the 17 SDGs and 169 targets and then draw connections between their current activities and those goals to create a report that supposedly shows their contributions to the SDGs.
Do we need to tell you what’s wrong with that?
If everyone was already doing enough to achieve the SDGs by 2030, they would be called the Sustainable Development Achievements, since we would have already reached the goals. It’s not just about how your "business as usual" may coincidentally be helping to achieve some of the SDG targets, but rather about accelerating change.
Rather than saying, "Look! 30% of our energy mix comes from renewable sources!" And then patting yourself on the back and calling it a day, figure out how you can get even better. So you’re at 30%, how can you get to 50, 75, and soon enough, 100% renewable energy?
For your organization to meaningfully contribute to the SDGs, and thereby avoid SDG washing, you will have to take a hard look at your internal business practices and implement far-reaching process changes. You may need to alter your strategies in order to make alignment with the SDGs a core part of your business model.
4. Don’t cherry-pick SDGs to report on
A classic SDG washing tactic is "cherry-picking," wherein an organization cherry picks the goals and targets that are the easiest to achieve, rather than the ones that have the highest priorities. The organization may also only report on those "easy" SDGs and avoid reporting on any negative impacts that their business activities may have on others.
The thing is, if you’re not actively working on changing something for the better or already super good in that area, you probably have a negative impact. This may sound harsh, but think about it. If you are not using 100% renewable energy, then you are emitting at least some CO2 which is a negative impact. If you don't have a gender-balanced board, you are upholding the current structures that are inhibiting women from equally taking part in society.
Sustainability is binary in that sense. If you’re not a meaningful part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
Some of the SDGs will be easier for your organization to promote than others, but, unfortunately, only going for the low-hanging fruit means you’re probably SDG washing.
You can avoid SDG washing by assessing which of the SDGs have the highest impact and how you can align your business activities towards promoting them. If there is an SDG that is absolutely not relevant for your business, be transparent in your reasoning in your report, rather than deliberately avoiding addressing that goal.
5. Use transparent data-reporting practices
We’ve talked a lot about setting concrete goals, but how do you measure your progress towards achieving them? Data. Lots and lots of data.
Data serves many purposes: it promotes transparency, comparability, and enables companies to make fact-driven decisions in executing their sustainability work efficiently. Data transparency bridges the gap between superficial concern and genuine action for sustainability issues such as the environment and gender equality.
To ensure that your organization isn’t SDG washing, make sure you have data to back up all of your claims of contributing to the SDGs.
The Bottom Line
To avoid SDG washing, align your organization to specific SDG targets, not just the overall goals. Set concrete goals, and focus on the SDGs with the highest impact, rather than simply the ones that are easier for your organization. Think about how you can evolve your current business practices to have an even greater impact and then change your strategies and business processes accordingly. Lastly, use a data-driven, transparent approach to measure your progress.
SustainLab can help you achieve data transparency. Our mission is to enable decision makers to achieve impactful sustainability results with the help of data and automation SustainLab’s Sustainability Management Software is powered by AI to automate the collection and processing of sustainability data, minimize manual work, and monitor your sustainablility data to achieve transparency. We make data handling so simple that you can maintain a constant overview of your contribution towards the SDGs, as opposed to only generating a yearly sustainability report.
Get in touch to understand how SustainLab will help your company avoid SDG washing to achieve data transparency and impact reporting!