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The SDGs: Who Is Leading the Way One Year Later?

Image Credit: Gratisography

Every 15 years, the United Nations gets together to determine its next steps in bettering the earth and the people on it. In late 2015, this took the form of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The SDGs focus on climate action, decreasing poverty, increasing access to health, reducing inequality, and increasing sustainable development, in both rural and developed areas, over the next 15 years. Although the goals appear broad and ambitious, the UN aims to further the advancement of people while protecting and fostering the health and wellbeing of the planet.

As the plans went into effect on January 1st, 2016, there was a feeling of hope and global awareness. COP21 in Paris represented a promising peek into the collaborative efforts of businesses and people around the world.

Now, almost an entire year since the UN made a call to action for global business leaders, who has been listening? We are just beginning to see the effect of the UN’s goals, but what businesses are performing their due diligence to better the health and wellbeing of the humans and the world?

Air Pollution and Health Leaders

In terms of helping better the health of the world, the UN has five specific goals set under the “Global Health” umbrella: Health for all, improved access to healthcare for women, reduced poverty, sustainable agriculture and food systems, and improved air quality.

Businesses across the globe are acting to reduce air pollution, yet the UN has found that its initial projection required a bit of an adjustment: According to a recent report, companies will need to cut their emissions by another 25% to reach the desired 2030 levels.

“If we don’t start taking additional action now, beginning with [COP22] in Marrakesh, we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment. “The growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver. The science shows that we need to move much faster.”

Luckily, some businesses and cities are paving the way by becoming shining examples of community-conscious businesses:

  • IBM and Johannesburg - IBM has always led the way in innovative and forward-thinking business practices. It has cultivated its Internet of Things (IOT) and cognitive computing technologies for years, but a recent collaboration with the growing city of Johannesburg is making a difference for the local population’s health. They are creating smart grid technology to monitor pollution emissions and help recommend changes. As South Africa continues to grow, this union will no doubt provide strong evidence to the world for the impact and importance of smart grid cities.
  • Birmingham City Council, UK - Britain's second-largest city is quickly becoming the budding hotspot for business ventures. However, they are doing it with clean air in mind. The Clean Air Zone legislation from the UK and EU has required five cities within the UK to reach certain air quality standards by 2020. Birmingham dived right into its plans to reduce air pollution in the city, with the community’s health at the forefront of their mind. Already the council has created three plans for the city, aimed at increasing bike usage, increasing public transportation, and decreasing the use of NOx through replacing engines on public vehicles.
  • Molekule – San Francisco-based startup Molekule is paving the way for consumers to be proponents of improved air quality. Its patent product, backed by the EPA, allows indoor pollutants to be broken down at a molecular level. Although the product will roll out to consumers in 2017, Molekule hopes to implement its design into large businesses to improve the interior air quality for workers around the world.

Sustainable Energy and Production Leaders

Efforts to create sustainable production have finally begun to join the mainstream, even before the SDGs were approved. As Marylhurst University describes, businesses are beginning to see the long-term value of sustainability. A Triple Bottom Line approach allows businesses to spend more money upfront in construction/remodeling while still keeping an eye on a more affordable future.

Although the incentive might be monetary, businesses are helping to create healthier and more sustainable communities through their actions. Within just the past few months, many influential businesses have buckled down on their future plans to reduce their impact on the earth:

  • Azwood Energy of New Zealand - Bioenergy company Azwood made the switch from coal to carbon-neutral wood scraps about 13 years ago. It is now a leader in its community and fueling many of the homes in rural and industrial areas of New Zealand. Its hope is to inspire other local (and international) companies to look into the future of carbon-neutral wood fuel as an alternative to coal.
  • General Motors’ 2050 Plan - GM has gotten ambitious with its energy plan. In November, it announced that it would be 100% reliant on renewable energy by 2050. Its plan is ambitious, but it is working in increments to make it a reality. At its China facility, GM plans to create an entire solar-paneled roof and carport facility. It also has two wind farms in the works. As an intermediate step, the company is aiming for 125 megawatts of power from renewable energy within the next 4 years. The hope is that switching now will save the company billions of dollars as the price of fossil fuel continues to rise.
  • Akamai Technologies - Akamai, a cloud-computing company in Massachusetts, has created a plan to transition 50% of its energy consumption to sustainable sources by 2020. Its detailed plan is aimed at creating fixed rates with sustainable energy companies, and reducing emissions to below 2015 levels.

Global Leaders in Ethical Practices

Among the UN’s 17 Goals, many can be attributed to the fight for social justice and equality across the globe. Yet how can businesses help advance the lives of people around the globe?

For one, global companies with global workforces can aim to increase standards for everything they do by creating a global code of ethics. From working transparently at every level, to providing reasonable or exceptional wages, to improving conditions for workers’ families, companies can not only stay profitable in a global market, but they can help foster and build up the communities where they produce their products. These are some companies that are shining bright in the ethical global marketplace.

  • Patagonia and Fair Trade - Patagonia has been marketing its ethical practices for years, but it still leads the way in fair trade and fair treatment for its global employees. It has found the value in investing for its employees, even going so far to offer free kindergarten and day care for growing families in its Indian factories. It has also cut harmful chemicals in its clothing production, and invested heavily in “green chemical” usage at their plants, to ensure the safety of both its workers and its loyal consumers.
  • Tata Group, India - The Tata Group (Tata Steel and Tata Power, specifically) has been named one of the world’s most ethical companies by Ethisphere for three years running. The Indian conglomerate has been around since the mid-1800s, but has been functioning under the Code of Ethics created by chairman Ratan Tata in 1998. Its code and method of business is strict but open to fluctuation and change, something it refers to as a “living document.” The company aims to be an example for other global companies, and requires that anyone who utilizes the Tata name is required to uphold its rules of conduct.

As businesses continue to improve their practices, these few are setting a standard for excellence. Not only are they keeping the interests of their customers in mind, they are being conscious of their impact on the earth and on the global community.

The UN will continue to push the importance of the SDGs, and more businesses will need to start paying attention. Before we know it, 2030 will be upon us, and many are eager to see just how much we have improved.


Katie McBeth is a freelance writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. She spends her free time being the mother of three cats and a dog named Toby. You can follow her animal… [Read more about Katie McBeth]


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