Today is Sustainability Day! Every year on the fourth Wednesday in October, this day is celebrated to teach people about the importance of caring for the environment and society and what steps we need to take to do so. Therefore, today is the perfect opportunity to look a little closer at the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and their evolution, purpose and application, and how they are used by certain companies in the lubricants industry and the supply chain.
But first, while the set of 17 SDGs provides an excellent framework for sustainability in business, I think there is a missing 18th SDG.
The idea of adding an 18th goal to the 17 SDGs is not new. A few ideas have been punted around and some proposed additions are more practicable than others.
Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers, an environmental governance professor at Radboud University in the Netherlands, makes the case for an 18th SDG that tackles ”Animal Welfare,” which she thinks has so far been neglected in discussions on sustainable development. The National Space Society proposes goal 18 should address the sustainable development of a “Space Economy.” Their thinking is that we must recognize the imperative role of space as a solid foundation for humanity’s future. On a more conceptual level, Alain Devigne of French solar power Amarenco, proposes an extra SDG named “Change of Consciousness.” He aims to propagate a new, strengthened consciousness of humanity and underlines the power and responsibility of the individual.
I believe we need, and I advocate for, an 18th SDG that looks in an entirely different direction. My reasoning is that not only is something missing from the original 17, but that there is more to the SDGs than just the task of implementation. Taken collectively, the 17 SDGs imply an 18th goal that goes beyond sustainability itself.
I often hear people ask, “What’s in the 17 SDGs for me?” This question tends toward the utilitarian and functional side, but I think it raises a fair point, because it may help create a sense of ownership. In response to this question, I propose the 18th SDG be named “Purpose.”
Before I explain, it is worth reacquainting ourselves with the existing 17 SDGs.
The 17 SDGs are a broad and interdependent set of objectives intended to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” The UN General Assembly set up the goals in 2015 and intended they be achieved by 2030, less than a decade away from now.
The goals are included in a UN resolution called the 2030 Agenda, or what is colloquially known as Agenda 2030. They were developed in the Post-2015 Development Agenda as the future global development framework to succeed the Millennium Development Goals, which ended in 2015.
Although the goals are wide-reaching, in July 2017 they were made more actionable by a resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly. The resolution identifies specific targets for each goal, along with indicators to measure progress between now and the achievement year of 2030.
There are a number of tools to track and visualize progress toward achievement of the goals. One such is the Sustainable Development Report (formerly known as the SDG Index & Dashboards), which is a global assessment of countries’ progress toward achieving the SDGs.
According to the report’s global ranking in 2021, Finland is the leader out of 193 countries listed, having achieved 86% of all 17 SDGs so far. All of the top-10 countries in the report are European and half of them are Scandinavian. Germany is fourth with 82%, while the United States is in 32nd with 76%, and China is 57th with 72%.
In March 2019, the board of the Union of the European Lubricants Industry set up a sustainability task force to develop and define what sustainability means for the European lubricants industry.
Taking the 17 SDGs as its point of reference, the task force identified four SDGs with high relevance to the lubricants industry. After having met its objectives as planned, the task force was replaced by a sustainability committee in June 2020.
When looking at the commitment to the SDGs of 10 selected players in the lubricant industry (including suppliers) – with eight of them being former task force members – it is interesting to see how they approach and prioritize the SDGs.
Some of these companies take all 17 SDGs as reference point and describe the extent to which they contribute to each goal individually and by which actions. Others have prioritized – some of them through conducted sustainability materiality analyses – and described those SDGs, which they pay-into and support most or consider most relevant to their business.
Remarkably, all 10 companies focus on SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, and SDG 13: Climate Action, while nine also name SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production as material to them, followed by SDG 17, which is among the prioritized SDGs of seven companies.
The confluence of challenges facing the global community since the SDGs were developed is unprecedented. Coming up for two years, the world has ground almost to a halt due to the pandemic. There has been constant conflict in the Middle East and a new wave of polarizing politics in Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, a widening inequality gap has emerged where the richest have wealth that would make Crassus blush, as well an economic boom and bust cycle that is gaining frequency. And on top of all this, the overshoot of the planet’s resource boundaries is growing compounding the looming catastrophe of anthropological climate change.
The time for our collective ability to deliver sustainable solutions has never been more urgent. Never before have so many people and world leaders united under one basic idea of sustainable development.
It is all about the actual purpose of people and companies and the people of companies, i.e. employees. Employees care more about sustainability than ever before and want to contribute to the higher goals of their company. For companies and their employees, it is therefore a question of finding a balance between profit and purpose. And more and more companies are talking about their purpose as an objective and raison d‘être that goes beyond just making a profit.
Purpose is a moving target, expressing the change we want to see happening by us, by ourselves both in our companies and in our private lives. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)