Revisiting the SDGs in Liminal Spaces

May 20, 2020 | #GoingLiminal Series

By Principal Consultant, Josh Hendry 

In a recent conversation with my 7-year-old he casually referred to something as “the old normal”. I like the concept of normal being ‘old’ and outdated. That idea echoes the growing global discussion that perhaps we should not be fixated on returning to normal – maybe the ‘business as usual’ era has ended with the COVID-19 crisis and can give way to a more sustainable path forward. What would it take to make a more sustainable future the ‘new normal’?

In Stuart McLachlan’s recent article that inspired our series on #GoingLiminal, he shares the idea of liminal spaces, meaning “the waiting areas between one point in time and space and the next”. Stuart suggests that this does not have to be a time to hunker down, but can be a time that fosters transformational change. While inspiring, transformational change can be scary and overwhelming particularly without some sort of framework by which to organize an approach and measure success. The UN Sustainable Development Goals provides a framework that is well suited for this effort.

While many companies have been working since 2015 to integrate the SDGs into their businesses, we have often heard others reference various reasons why the SDGs are not an effective business tool. But these reasons and concerns should be revisited considering our changed world. If anything, the SDGs have become even more relevant as the issues they raise have either been brought into clearer focus by COVID-19 (e.g., equitable access to technology, healthcare and food) or point to the critical activities needed to find a more sustainable path forward (e.g., decarbonization, sustainable infrastructure).

Here are 3 common challenges to the SDGs that we often hear, now placed next to our current context:

1.      Addressing the SDGs would require too much disruption of the economy

  • Does this still hold up when we are dealing with an already disrupted economy? We are in the midst of restarting economies that have been voluntarily shut down at a scale and speed that many would have thought impossible only a few months ago. This is not business as usual! Many of the business successes we have seen over the past 2 months have been disruptive technologies and business models, e.g., video conferencing, remote education solutions, innovative delivery models, more agile supply chains. They have not seemed that ‘disruptive’ though – they have been essential and have demonstrated just how fast new technologies and business models can be rapidly adopted when necessary.

2.      SDGs are not focused enough on where businesses can have an impact (they are too focused on areas where governments need to take the lead)

  • This argument is often made when it comes to the SDGs related to poverty alleviation and other socioeconomic challenges. The current crisis has shown the important but different roles business and government can play, the expectations of businesses to ‘step up’ and the need for collaboration across all parts of our society. Businesses can adapt to challenges, innovate and roll-out solutions quickly. Government can provide direction and resources on needs and addressing gaps for the most vulnerable populations. Together they can accomplish far more than they can alone.

3.      SDGs are too high level / generic to have an impact

  • This issue with the SDGs is often cited but is commonly rooted in an implementation of the SDGs which focuses too much on the high-level goals and not enough on the more specific targets and indicators. One solution to this, that is more relevant now in this transformational phase than ever, is to put the SDGs in the context of your products/services in their applications and not just map how your business values and goals align with the 17 high level SDGs. That is, what solutions are you enabling via your products/services and what is the scale of that impact with respect to addressing the SDGs? (More on this approach in an upcoming blog – stay tuned!)

While it is easy to get stuck thinking about how good things used to be before the pandemic, the SDGs offer a strong reminder that the ‘old normal’ had more than its share of challenges for most of the world’s population. Those challenges obviously still exist, but their context and urgency are evolving and our thinking about the SDGs should too. We are currently in a time which has many of us re-calibrating what success looks like – could we create a ‘new normal’ designed to achieve the SDGs by 2030?

All opinion pieces were first shared on LinkedIn.

Josh Hendry
Principal Consultant, North America
Josh has 15 years of experience in product and corporate sustainability strategy development and program implementation. Josh specializes in initiatives to promote the efficient production and use of materials and resources, which he has applied through projects on topics such as Resource Efficiency, Sustainable Materials Management, and alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

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