Call for greater clarity in sustainable development reporting

Almost all UK businesses and nearly two-thirds of global firms are now reflecting the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) in their corporate reporting, according to research from PwC which suggests the move will help to significantly shift the dial in eradicating poverty and climate change

The PwC report analyses how almost 500 companies in 17 countries are reporting the action they are taking on the SDGs, first launched in January 2016, and seeks to discover which goals are being prioritised and how well businesses are reporting on them.

It found that 83% of UK businesses and 62% of global firms surveyed are now reflecting SDGs at some level into their reporting. 

However, the data shows 40% are still either ignoring or having no meaningful engagement with the goals, and PwC says this needs to change if the ambition to effect real change by 2030 is to be achieved.

Louise Scott, director in PwC’s sustainability and climate change team and co-author of the report, said: ’It’s time for the businesses to stop paying lip service to SDGs and convert stakeholder and board aspiration into corporate action. Take SDG 13 “Climate Action”, for example - a favourite goal for the majority of UK businesses.

‘You might assume it’s one of the top rated priorities because of the high profile nature of climate change. But we think a more likely explanation is that most organisations already have mechanisms in place to measure greenhouse gases due to regulatory obligations, making it a relatively simple goal to respond to. 

‘But that’s not really looking in any depth at which SDG targets are most relevant to a business - either as a risk or as an opportunity. And that’s not really in the spirit of the SDGs either.’

PwC says a lack of clarity and connectivity when discussing SDGs could have a major impact on the ability of business to effectively report and could leave stakeholders struggling to make positive judgements on the strategy and purpose of their organisation.

UK business may feel that by focusing on SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) that they automatically contribute to SDG 1 (no poverty) or 2 (zero hunger) for example.

But unless they can explicitly make this connection, they may find it difficult to report effectively, while aligning strategy with SDGs could also help global businesses gain a much clearer view on how they help or hinder a government to achieve national goals.

In addition, PwC’s research suggests that companies are failing to respond to the public’s concerns.

In the UK, for example, the top three business goals are SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 5 (gender equality), an issue the financial services sector has been addressing in recent years, and SDG 13 (climate action). 

The public focus, however, is on zero hunger (SDG 2), health and wellbeing (SDG3) and no poverty (SDG1). According to PwC’s calculations, the worst performing goals for the UK (and arguably those that should be government priorities) are SDG14 (life below water), SDG15 (life on land) and SDG4 (quality education).

Alan McGill, PwC UK sustainability reporting partner, said: ‘Businesses need to better understand the interconnections between some of the SDGs. This could prove not only beneficial to their brand and bottom line but also their ability to expand and respond to more of the 169 targets than they may have thought possible.

‘This insight requires a more robust and sophisticated level of reporting on the SDGs than currently exists.’

The PwC report on SDG is available here

Report by Pat Sweet

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