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How HR can help hit the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

Organisations of all sizes have a responsibility to do all they can to help to protect the planet, and the onus is on HR to drive change for good, says Claire Muir.

Back in 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and planet,” was adopted by all United Nations (UN) member states and, at the heart of this, were the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

An urgent call for action, the 17 bold, interlinked, global goals span a wide range of topics, from poverty and inequality to climate change and biodiversity. With each expected to be achieved by 2030, everyone in an organisation has a part to play – especially HR.

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Neil Morrison, group HR director at water company Severn Trent, says: “The SDGs provide a brilliantly helpful framework for professionals to assess their organisational performance and understand how they can contribute towards a more sustainable and fairer world. 

“As HR professionals, we have a great opportunity to demonstrate our strategic capability and to raise these issues with our senior teams.”

The SDGs also present a tangible opportunity to engage employees and attract talent – 83% of millennials say they would be more loyal to a business that enables them to contribute to social problems, according to Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).


Being held to account

With many goals, however, come many challenges: convincing employees their individual contribution is worthwhile, addressing some targets without diluting others and avoiding the SDGs becoming lip service, to name a few.

In response to the latter, Tortoise a ‘slow news’ company created by former Times editor and ex-head of BBC News James Harding, has thrust the commitment levels of FTSE 100 companies into the spotlight with its Responsibility100 Index.

Launched in 2019, the Index uses data from more than 200 publicly available sources to track how well an organisation has lived up to its promises – and how they measure up against others. The latest ranking update was published in October.

At Severn Trent, which has risen steadily and topped the Index in 2021, Morrison says: “The Tortoise Index takes the SDG and breaks them down into sub-measures – for example training hours per employee, or the number of employment tribunal cases per employee – real, tangible measures that help organisations to benchmark not only what they say – the ‘talk’ – but, most importantly, what they do – the ‘walk’. 

“While it will never be an exhaustive list it is pretty comprehensive and helps break the goals down to meaningful, actionable outcomes HR teams can pick up on and engage with. There’s something every company – no matter its size – can turn into a meaningful plan of action.”


The UN's Sustainable Development Goals

1. No poverty

2. Zero hunger

3. Good health and wellbeing

4. Quality education

5. Gender equality

6. Clean water and sanitation

7. Affordable and clean energy

8. Decent work and economic growth

9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure

10. Reduced inequalities

11. Sustainable cities and communities

12. Responsible consumption and production

13. Climate action

14. Life below water

15. Life on land

16. Peace, justice and strong institutions

17. Partnerships for the goals


Avoiding overwhelm

Being a responsible business is a culmination of a myriad of individual actions and initiatives. So, Morrison advises starting small and progressing in chunks: “While not every goal will be directly applicable to every organisation, we can all contribute in some way and identifying the ones that we can have the greatest impact on is key. 

“Next, build out into some of the other goals and areas that aren’t immediately apparent but make sense and have clear, transferable actions – while remembering you won’t be able to do everything, or change every part.”

At fellow FTSE 100 company, Sage, chief people officer Amanda Cusdin has done just that. She says: “By focusing on areas where we know we can make a meaningful impact we can drive the most effective results. We have approached the UN’s SDGs with our campaign ‘Knocking Down Barriers’, which aims to give everyone the opportunity to thrive. We go about this in three ways: by tackling digital inequality, economic inequality and protecting the planet.

“We have committed to reducing our carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, reaching net-zero by 2040 and supporting our customers to take their own action. 

“We know that starting a business can be a route to economic stability. In the UK we signed a partnership with MyKindaFuture to support unemployed people to become their own boss.

"In Atlanta, we are working with BOSS Network to provide financial support and training to black-owned businesses. Internationally, we are partnering with Kiva to provide loans to underserved communities to support people to start a business.

“And Sage Foundation is the beating heart of our sustainability and society strategy. Through this, we give every colleague five paid days of volunteering to play their part in tackling inequalities and the climate crisis, and to address challenges within their communities.”


SDGs and SMEs

In theory, everyone can take action and it shouldn’t be a competitive game. In fact, smaller companies can often initiate change faster than larger organisations, but research from Sage shows small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) risk being left behind in meeting the SDGs unless more is done to support them.

“Of SMEs that identified areas of impact that they should be prioritising, only a tiny proportion, 9%, said that there were no barriers preventing them from prioritising and making changes,” explains Cusdin. 

As such, Sage is calling on big business and policy makers to support SMEs with a series of small but impactful changes. At COP26, the software company stood alongside the International Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants to present a report calling for a standardised and simplified approach to reporting and accounting.

“Our findings brought together 10,000 SMEs, supply chain leaders and government officials to discuss next steps for real action,” adds Cusdin. 


How to make it work for your organisation

Regardless of business size and the goals you focus on, being engaging and relatable to your organisation, your community and your colleagues is key. “It is crucial that staff are educated on the subject,” says Cusdin.

“Employees are the backbone of any organisation, and a sustainable strategy means very little if employees are not involved or aware of how to achieve it.”

Naturally, at Severn Trent, the sixth goal, focused on clean water and sanitation, is close to the hearts of many.

Morrison says: “Every organisation uses water in some shape or form and the behaviours we encourage at work and at home can fundamentally contribute towards availability and carbon footprint.

"Looking at this from an organisational level, HR could recommend installing drinking water taps rather than selling bottled water, or providing employees with refillable bottles.

“Outside of work, it could be providing employees with tips about how to reduce water consumption – simple changes like avoiding hoses, turning off the tap while brushing your teeth and making sure the plug is in the sink when doing the washing up – and, therefore, lower their bills and carbon footprint.”

CAF director of people and purpose David Jessop recommends payroll giving, or Give As You Earn (GAYE), as an easy way for employees to donate tax-effectively to SDG-related causes.

“Firms can contribute further by choosing to match fund employees’ donations, which increases employee engagement, engenders loyalty and signals a commitment to the wider community,” he adds.

B&Q, which secured the government’s Silver Payroll Giving Quality Mark Award as a result of its efforts, promotes GAYE at every opportunity; giving talks, displaying posters, in the newsletter, on the intranet and within induction packs.

It is also supported by the professional fundraising organisation Sharing the Caring, which visits stores on a regular basis to boost awareness and sign-up new donors.

CAF also helps larger businesses achieve their philanthropic aims by operating grant programmes or supporting fundraising in the workplace for SDG-aligned causes.

Jessop explains: “We have collaborated with companies like AstraZeneca, Warburtons and Marks and Spencer to help them donate effectively and deliver long-lasting development change.”

AstraZeneca’s Young Health Programme (YHP) focuses on SDG 3.4 (reducing early death from non-communicable diseases (NCDs). It promotes education and awareness of the primary NCD risk factors so that young people can make informed choices and protect their future health. 

At the project’s inception, AstraZeneca approached CAF for support in verifying grantee organisations, processing payments and distributing grants and, as a result, YHP has reached more than 12 million young people in more than 30 countries, and made a significant contribution to SDG 3.4. 

2030 may feel like a long time off and shelving SDGs an easy option – but it is not the best option: “I don’t think organisations that turn their backs on their broader societal and environmental impact will be successful in the longer-term,” says Morrison.

“The public mood combined with increased scrutiny from external stakeholders will ultimately mean that they must adapt or risk becoming marginalised.”  


This piece appears in the November/December 2021 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.