Unpacking the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for Australian retailers

Image of a sign about climate change at a protest

“We don’t have plan B because there is no planet B.”

– Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General from 2007 to 2016, quoted in November 2016

Retail is tough at the moment; the ongoing pandemic has accelerated the changes we were seeing over the past five years into essentially five months. E-commerce is growing rapidly; store portfolios are being dramatically reduced in size and customers shopping patterns are changing.

One trend that is not changing but has perhaps fallen down the priority list at the moment is being a ‘purposeful’ retailer and being able to demonstrate that you are constantly investing in your social licence to trade. 

A lot has been written on Covid-19 and its negative impact, I actually wanted to step away from that and try and elevate the importance of ‘purpose’ back up the retailer’s agenda.

I was reading some interesting reports recently on the role the retail industry can have in delivering the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and felt it was time to discuss and introduce these really important points as we try to push ‘purpose’ back up the agenda. In this article, I will look at the following points:

  • What are the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs? What is their brief history?
  • What are the most pertinent and relevant ones for Australian retailers?
  • What are one or two great examples of leading practice in delivery against an SDG?

What are the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs? What is their brief history?

The UN website describes the SDGs simply as the following: 

The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. The 17 goals are all interconnected, and in order to leave no one behind, it is important that we achieve them all by 2030. 

These goals were ratified by all 193 members of the United Nations in 2015, after many years of consultation, discussion and negotiation. 

They are measured regularly and reported against across a variety of countries, agencies and governments. Without getting into detail, it would be fair to summarise that while there is a great deal of effort to achieve the goals by 2030, achievements to date have been mixed, funding has been withheld, despite being promised, and the ability to achieve all of these lofty and aspirational targets by 2030, remains challenging. It does not mean we have not progressed and should continue; it just means we need to be positive realists in what we can achieve in this time.

What are the most pertinent and relevant goals for retailers and some good examples?

While all of the goals are worthy, it is important that as retailers, we focus on the ones where as an industry, with our vast interconnected supply chains, we can make a real difference. In researching this, I have made use of an excellent 2018 report from The Textile Exchange and KPMG entitled “Threading the needle – weaving the Sustainable Development Goals into the textile, retail and apparel industry”.

The report has five key takeaways:

  • The SDGs may offer companies both a business opportunity and a framework to manage operational risks. These goals are not another compliance requirement. Simply, there is a huge business opportunity in “doing the right thing.”
  • There are several opportunities to engage with the SDGs. Opportunities range from purely commercial to shared value approaches for companies across the textile, retail, and apparel value chain. Simply, integrate the SDGs into what we do now.
  • The SDGs build on a rich history of sustainability efforts by the industry. Simply, we have done a lot and can build on that work.
  • Collaborating with the right partners can lead to transformative results. Simply, more is achieved together than as a solo player.
  • The SDGs can help companies engage with governments as they seek to design and implement interventions related to the SDGs. Simply, government is using the frameworks to design policy and need industry skills to make it happen at scale.

The report noted that “the textile, retail, and apparel sector […] are strategically positioned to impact on a few key goals” and it provided an engagement framework where the industry can have the most direct impact. These are shown pictorially below:

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The report also gave examples of retailers that are already making progress in these areas. For example:

  • SDG #5 (Gender equality): Gap Inc, VF Corp and Inditex Group have all introduced strict policies into their suppliers focusing on workers’ health, physical protection and empowerment.
  • SDG #6 (Clean water and sanitation): C+A in Bangladesh have partnered with PaCT to introduce cleaner production methods into over 100 factories and mills in their supply chain.
  • SDG #7 (Affordable and clean energy): Nike have signed wind turbine contracts which allows them to source renewable energy for all their factories in North America.
  • SDG #8 (Decent work and economic growth): Patagonia reports that through its Fair Trade certified program the company has made a positive impact on over 42,000 workers in nine countries since 2014.
  • SDG #13 (Climate action): VF Corp has adopted a sustainable forestry policy, which includes purchasing guidelines for materials that go into the company’s clothing.

The UN’s SDGs are an important area for retailers to focus on as we evolve post Covid-19.

We simply cannot go back to what we did before, our consumers expect more from us and using the SDGs as a framework for even the smallest of decisions in an individual business, strikes me as a great framework to work within.

It is the least we can do moving forward.

Adrian Jones is the co-founder of BlockTexx

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