UN SDGs: Blue-washing or Sustainability Drivers?

I am always inspired when attending IFC’s Sustainability Exchanges. At the 2018 IFC Sustainability Exchange: Building Resilience, Sparking Creativity, I found myself gravitating to a session on Operationalizing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I was curious to learn if the SDGs were being viewed as a repackaging exercise, an engagement and co-branding opportunity, or as drivers to move the needle towards more sustainable investing and development.

Inspired attending the 2018 IFC Sustainability Exchange: Building Resilience, Sparking Creativity,

It all started well. IFC’s moderator connected the diverse audience in the room with the topic and featured presenters. These included representatives from ICMM, the metals and mining industry club, IPIECA, the oil and gas industry association, and Conservation International, a nature conservation NGO. I liked that they all talked about some of the challenges associated with the adoption and application of SDGs. This is reality.

In a funny way, the discussions highlighted the interlinkages of the 17 SDGs. Depending on the professional area of focus of the speaker or participant, ecosystems-related SDGs were the most critical, or peace, justice and strong institutions were the fundamental platform for achieving the SDGs.

Learning about Systems Thinking during LEAD session in October 1998 in China

This felts a bit like coming full circle. It reminded me of my learning about Systems Thinking from Dennis Meadows, the co-author of Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth, during a session I attended at Rockefeller Foundation's LEAD program in October 1998 in China. I could see the interlinkages but also the complexities of changes required to achieving the SDGs.

Back to IFC's SDG session, we also labored over any need for the private sector to apply a materiality approach to the 17 SDGs. Should the private sector focus on issues such as Climate Change or tailor its SDG-related activities to those most valued/rewarded by the financial markets?

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As a member and supporter of the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) and the GRI Community, the suggestions to integrate SDGs into impact assessments, management systems and sustainability reporting all resonated with me. Listening to this, I could see how my post-EBRD consulting career - focused on ESG, ESIA, IE/IMG/IESC and sustainability - could continue a little while longer.

On a more fundamental note, demonstrating alignment with SDGs and other international frameworks for Good International Industry Practice (GIIP), such as the IFC Performance Standards, Equator Principles and Sustainability Reporting, and can provide an important line of defense for projects/operations which are experiencing creeping expropriation on pretext of lack of social license to operate (SLO) and related issues.

My three take-aways from the SDG session at the 2018 IFC Sustainability Exchange: Building Resilience, Sparking Creativity are the following:

  • SDGs provide a useful tool to demonstrate and report responsibility motives, and projects designed and operated in line with GIIP
  • SDGs provide sustainability leaders another tool to differentiate, engage, communicate and defend
  • Demonstrating robust SDG linkages can help prevent criticisms of “blue washing” and protect during investor-state disputes

What is your preferred approach to SDGs? Shotgun or scalpel?

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