03.05.2018  |  Strategi & ledelse

Are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) competing with other industry standards?

Indhold fra partner Hvad er dette?

As more and more businesses begin to explore strategic alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the question that many business representatives are now asking is – how do the SDGs compare to other industry standards?

Each industry sector has its own set of sustainability standards and certifications, which have been known to compete with one another for top place in terms of approach, visibility and range of issues covered. If we take the building sector as an example, there are a number of standards and certifications that can classify a building project as sustainable. There are country-specific building codes that ensure a certain level of energy performance. And in addition to mandatory building codes, there are voluntary certifications like Energy Star, BREEAM and LEED that can specify a methodology for optimizing building efficiencies, working with a range of underlying concepts like cradle to cradle and circular economy. The same standard can also vary between countries, such as the Passive House standard, which includes different standard elements in Europe as opposed to the US.   

 Now, as the UN Sustainable development Goals are becoming more visible in communications from large corporations, many companies are left wondering what exactly the SDGs- or Global Goals- are, and what role they will play in the future decision-making and standardization across a wide range of industry sectors. Very simply, the SDGs are a set of 17 Global Goals for sustainability, backed by 169 Targets. The issues addressed by the SDGs cover everything from poverty, to sustainable energy, to equality, to climate action. These 17 Goals were adopted by all 193 UN member states in September 2015 with an action plan titled "Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development." And if you have seen the 17 brightly-colored icons of the Sustainable Development Goals, you are likely to remember them.

But it is one thing to recognize the Global Goals when their icons appear here and there, another to identify which of the Global Goals is relevant for an organization, and another still to identify how to take action based on these Goals and Targets. It is in this last point - in identifying how to meaningfully apply the SDGs - that many business representatives begin looking to the other sustainability standards that they work with, wondering how the SDGs compare. Do the SDGs cover the same actionable items? Do the SDGs offer a parallel or competing approach to working with sustainability? Will the SDGs be the next industry standard that everyone will desire and require?

These are very interesting issues to discuss, because in answering these questions, we come one step closer to answering the global challenges that the SDGs address. The reflections presented here represent my work at Danish Energy Management, the Danish consultancy firm where I have worked with the UN Sustainable Development Goals since early 2016, in addition to the 10 years I spent working with organizational sustainability and CSR before that.

Here is how I see things fitting together…

Fundamentally, the SDGs provide a platform for sustainability that can both focus and expand efforts towards the triple bottom line of people, planet and prosperity. For businesses and organizations of all shapes and sizes, the Global Goals can help organizations to focus on how their products and services impact their customers and stakeholders, reinforcing and developing positive impact. If impact is negative in some areas, finding innovative solutions can expand business opportunities, expand networks in a more sustainable direction, and ultimately create positive feedback loops.

In answer to the question about how the SDGs compare to industry standards and certifications, the SDGs support industry standards, rather than competing with them. This is because the Sustainable Development Goals and SDG Targets provide direction, but being able to measure sector- specific impact requires further metrics that industry standards and certifications can provide. While the UN SDGs also offer national indicators that can be measured by national statistical offices, the UN encourages businesses and organizations to use “benchmarks set by industry” to define their own indicators. Using industry standards and certifications is probably also the best way for businesses to ensure sectoral consistency in measuring sustainable impact. And using tried and tested standards and certifications also means that companies can benefit from the learning that comes with their development over time.

In answer to the question of whether the SDGs cover the same actionable items as industry standards and certifications, it would probably be fair to say that there is most often overlap on fundamental issues, but sector-specific standards and certifications can be specific and actionable in a way that the Global Goals and Targets cannot. While the SDGs can provide a global framework for focusing on specific issues and help to set local and national agendas, industry standards have the benefit of providing depth for addressing specific sustainability issues, taking action and measuring success. So rather than a competing approach, the SDGs provide a complementary approach to sustainability standards and certifications.  Certification schemes are also an important source of data for the national statistical offices that aim to measure Global Goal achievement. There is a wealth of sector-specific data that exists in industry, and this can also contribute to a mutually inclusive ecosystem for sustainability.

And finally, to the question of whether the SDGs will be the next standard that everyone will desire and require – this could indeed be the case. It would seem fair to say that although the Global Goals will not, and should not, replace industry standards and certifications, they do provide a foundation for action.  With a globally agreed framework of specific Goals and Targets, the UN SDGs represent tremendous global support for sustainability that is already contributing to the formation of national policies, local action platforms, and a number of financing opportunities. It is perhaps for this reason that the investment potential for the SDGs has been estimated at over two trillion dollars a year. To the extent that SDGs are desired and required for a wide range of activity such as public tenders, value chain cooperation or support for technology innovation, the ecosystem for sustainability will grow and provide a mutually inclusive environment for work with the Sustainable Development Goals.  

This is of course one perspective, and one that I spend a large portion of my time thinking about. For those of you also working with sustainability in your organizations, I would love to hear your considerations regarding these issues, and particularly if they are different from the observations presented here!

Another question is, how are these issues perceived by certification bodies, industry and sectoral associations, and what are the considerations that come into play from their perspective?

Any and all feedback welcome!

Mere fra Dansk Energi Management A/S

Dansk Energi Management A/S


  • info@dem.dk
  • +45 8827 3300
  • Galionsvej 64 DK-1437 København K

Med fokus på det voksende globale behov for bæredygtig udvikling har 193 verdensledere forpligtet sig til FNs 17 bæredygtige udviklingsmål. 175 lande har indtil videre underskrevet klimaaftalen kaldet ”Paris Agreement”. Over hele verden kræver lande, virksomheder og befolkninger handling. Med energi som vores kernekompetence, og med mere end 20…

Se virksomhedsprofil  

  CSR.dk anvender cookies, som vi bruger til at huske dine indstillinger og statistik m.m. Når du fortsætter med at bruge websitet accepterer vores nye cookie- og persondatapolitik. Læs mere