Measuring your contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals with Social Metrics

The aim of this article is to give an insight into how companies’ efforts in various areas of corporate sustainability can contribute to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined by the United Nations. Indicators and metrics measuring company performance presented in the Handbook for Product Social Impact Assessment can be the linking element in mapping sustainability progress against the SDGs.

Authors:  Elsa Valencia Martinez, Kata Keresztesi, Diana Indrane, Jacobine Das Gupta

Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a set of seventeen aspirational “Global Goals” with 169 targets within them. The goals were published by the United Nations in September 2015 and agreed upon by its 194 Member States, as well as global civil society. They serve as a point of reference in sustainability and development for civil society, government as well as the private sector.

The SDGs have the potential to fundamentally shift the way we do business. Many visionary and forward looking companies believe that business has a key role in making the SDGs work by fostering innovation, investment and collaboration. There is still a huge disconnect, however, between awareness of the SDGs and real corporate action. The successful implementation of SDGs requires business to set measurable targets and continuously track progress while pursuing business opportunities and solving global challenges. The SDG agenda creates new demand for assessment and accountability which can inspire companies to invent novel methodologies to check their advancement towards sustainability.

Companies start to respond to the SDG global agenda

In general, companies are advised to develop a better understanding of their potential sustainability impact and opportunities in order to integrate sustainability into core strategy (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2015). They are also encouraged to map how their current strategies align with SDGs by putting impact measurement methodologies and processes in place. It is important to understand the positive and negative effects of operations and activities. In addition to the understanding of their own operations, companies should assess their contributions across their entire value chains. They should prioritize a few flagship SDGs material to their business where they can make a significant impact as well as support national governmental efforts.

The Rockström model

It is possible to characterize the SDGs using the “wedding cake” concept (Figure A) developed by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2016). This hierarchical categorization emphasises that economies and societies are inherently embedded into the biosphere. This
interpretation of social, economic, and ecological sectors, which are traditionally seen as separate systems, showcases society’s dependency on the well-being of systems in the biosphere. It calls for action and a steep transition to a world where economy and society operate within the limits of the biosphere.

How to demonstrate contribution to the SDGs?

With the new focus on SDGs, companies will be challenged to prove how they contribute to achieving them, preferably in alignment with existing sustainability metrics and reporting. One way of doing so is to categorize the SDGs by focus area (environmental, social and economic) and then, when applicable, map them with areas of social impact measurement.

The mapping we would like to introduce in this blog post suggests a practical approach to how the SDGs and targets can be implemented.  The main focus is to find the relationships between the SDGs and the social impact indicators, or Social Topics included in the Handbook for Product Social Impact Assessment. This mapping can provide guidance on topics such as which SDG contributes to the improvement of a specific social topic, how we can link improvement actions to one or more SDGs, and how Product Social Metrics are overall able to substantiate SDG progress.

Integrating impact measurement against SDGs with industry relevant social indicators is a cost-effective way of extending existing understanding of social impact with an initial understanding on the company’s SDG impact. Shared baselining, integrated sustainability data management and shared performance tracking on various operations and value chain indicators becomes possible.

Every SDG is framed as a goal, however, each of them has sub-goals, or targets, which allow for practical interpretation and make the goals more tangible and measurable. 19 Social Topics, which describe 3 stakeholder groups (Workers, Consumers and Local Communities) were mapped against 17 global goals and their 169 targets.

Figure B | Mapping of stakeholder groups for 17 SDGs – inspired by the UNDP

Figure B illustrates the mapped connections between stakeholder groups and SDGs. For instance, SDG 16 is connected with Social Topics relevant for 2 stakeholder groups: local communities and workers. The blank space in the consumer layer indicates, however, that improvements in Social Topics of the consumer stakeholder group does not positively affect SDG 16.

Figure C | sample of mapping SDGs targets vs Social Topics

Another way of visualizing the mapping is using a matrix diagram (Figure C) where the X axis includes the Social Topics and the Y axis includes the 169 targets. Whenever progress achieved on a Social Topic serves the advancement of an SDG, the relevant cell of the matrix is marked. Connections can be weighted if necessary, depending on how strong the connection between an SDG and Social topic is.

Looking at the mapping through the lens of the Rockström model, it becomes evident that those SDGs which have the strongest connection to the Social Topics are mostly gathered in the society layer. SDG 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 12 are affected by all 3 stakeholder groups. Or in other words, when the Social Topics indicator of these stakeholder groups are positively affected by company programs, the above SDGs are also positively influenced.

SDG 1 (No poverty), 2 (Zero hunger), 3 (Good health and well-being), 4 (Quality education), and 7 (Affordable and clean energy) belong to the society layer of the Rockström model, leaving only SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) in the economy layer and SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) in the biosphere layer respectively. Based on the identified mapping relationships, therefore, we can conclude that Social Topics are mostly aimed at and reasonably correspond with the society part of the Rockström model.

Next steps

It is important to note that as the topic is subjective by nature and case dependent (e.g. how can an indicator contribute to a given SDG in an agricultural community context as opposed to in an industrial context). The mapping, therefore, is not exhaustive, but is a substantial first step towards understanding the relationship between the Social Topics of the Handbook for Social Impact Assessment and the SDGs.

To conclude, social metrics can be a means for companies to demonstrate their impact in the different Sustainable Development Goals. The Roundtable will continue to improved and disseminate business feasible and credible metrics to assess social impacts of products along the life cycle.

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References

PricewaterhouseCoopers. 2015. Make it your business: Engaging with the Sustainable. London : PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2015.

Stockholm Resilience Centre. 2016. Contributions to Agenda 2030. Stockholm Resilience Centre. [Online] Stockholm University, 2016. http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/research-news/2017-02-28-contributions-to-agenda-2030.html.