The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) create a structured framework for developing better business strategies and transforming markets.

Achieving the 17 goals, agreed by all member states in 2015, would create a world that is comprehensively sustainable, says the UN, which they define as socially fair, environmentally secure, inclusive, economically prosperous, and more predictable. The goals are interconnected, like the world, so progress on them all will have much more impact than achieving only some.

Whilst businesses are clearly important to achieving the SDGs, they also create new opportunities for businesses to grow in a more positive way.  The challenge therefore is to embed the 17 goals as a guiding framework for development, particular at a time when companies are looking to reimagine how they work, more in tune with society.

Making the business case for the SDGs in 2017, the UN’s Business and Sustainable Development Commission estimated that they represent a $12 trillion opportunity, combining cost savings and new revenues.  They particularly highlighted the opportunities for food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, health and well-being, together representing 60% of the global economy.

The commission said “to capture these opportunities in full, businesses need to pursue social and environmental sustainability as avidly as they pursue market share and shareholder value. If a critical mass of companies joins us in doing this now, together we will become an unstoppable force. If they don’t, the costs and uncertainty of unsustainable development could swell until there is no viable world in which to do business.”

Example: Cemex and the 17 SDGs

Cemex, the global cement business based in Mexico City, uses the 17 SDG framework as a way to develop its business strategy, and measure impact. This starts with its purpose “to build a better future for everyone” through better communities, which are built on towns, homes, schools and hospitals. This is about much more than cement, or even construction.

The global leader’s CEO, Fernando Gonzalez, says “Our social initiatives aim to make cities and communities more inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. By building strong, high-quality infrastructure, undertaking actions to combat climate change, and offering sustainable products and solutions, we directly contribute to many of the SDGs”.

“We have identified 11 of the 17 SDGs to which Cemex contributes directly (see diagram below) with SDGs 9 and 11 particularly related to our core business” he says, adding that “a growing number of investors and analysts agree that leading environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices can generate higher profitability and may be better long-term investments.

Cemex managers were asked to take the “SDG challenge” and write a postcard to themselves stating what action they would take to be an “SDG mover” describing how they each contribute to specific SDGs through day to day activities. Cemex’s Integrated Report brings together this mapping, tracked by specific KPIs, and detailed by function and geography.


More on the UN’s 17 SDGs and how they drive business innovation and growth