This post was sponsored by UBS, all editorial decisions my own. Images come from our time working together in 2018, all credit to UBS.

In recent years I’ve noticed growing conversation around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals outside of the political arena. When visiting NEONYT in January they were a major area of focus, and increasingly I’ve found myself discussing them with varying sustainable brands, business owners and individuals who I come into contact with. When I started working with UBS last year to look at ideas around sustainable choices, consumption and development, the goals were at the forefront of the context and language we used in our conversations. It only seemed natural, therefore, that I take some time to dive into the ideas of these goals, and what it might actually take to achieve them.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

Also known as the Global Goals or the SDGs, they’re a collection of 17 goals set by the United Nations for the year 2030, aimed to address environmental, economic and social issues. The goals aim to tackle poverty, inequality and environmental destruction while promoting global prosperity, peace, and justice.

They are as follows:

The goals aren’t perfect, and certain critiques of them are both justified and necessary as we attempt to advance our world forward.

However, I believe where the goals have the most potential and use is in providing a framework of understanding: a common language that spreads across multiple sectors and contexts, and provides clear common objectives to work towards. For example, a goal such as ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ requires collaboration from innumerable spheres. It affects town planning, architecture, public services, public transportation systems, school districts, air pollution, water quality, racial divides, indigenous land rights and more. When you have this many intersecting factors to consider, I think having a clear sense of the end purpose and a timeline makes it easier to find strategies of collaboration that will actually be effective, because you’re all on the same page to begin with. This is where working towards a more clearly defined SDG, as opposed to a vague notion, can be extremely useful.

Actually achieving them

UBS recently released a white paper that outlined some of the key challenges when it comes to achieving the SDGs, alongside potential solutions for mobilising greater support and action when it comes to tackling the problems we’re currently facing.

Challenge 1: lack of public awareness

It’s pretty difficult to achieve a goal if you don’t know it exists. In a 2016 Glocalities survey carried out across 24 countries, just 1% of citizens said they knew the SDGs “very well”, while a June 2017 summary of multiple surveys conducted in countries worldwide reveals that SDG awareness ranged from 28% to 45%.

The need for a more sustainable world touches the lives of everyone, so it’s important for people to be familiar with sustainable goals and the potential impact they can have, in order to take action and achieve progress in the most effective ways. Individuals and organisations can also be confused about where the biggest SDG opportunities lie, because experts have different opinions on the links and connectedness between the goals and various sectors. For example, SDG 7 promotes affordable and clean energy, which will also affect SDG 3, which looks at health. Solutions in one area will inherently improve the efforts of other goals, which is definitely a good thing, but it can also make it confusing if you’re not an expert and aren’t sure where best to focus your time, energy, or resources.

Simply put, because the goals and their solutions are so intertwined, it can be hard to know where to start or what course of action to prioritise. When it comes to areas like sustainable investing, the PRI (Principles for Responsible Investment) identified 10 key areas of opportunity, using analysis of 450 studies, reviews of more than 10 indexes and methodologies, and over 185 certification reviews. This leaves an obvious question: if you don’t have a deep knowledge of sustainability, how are you supposed to know what will work best?

This becomes even more complex when people try to actually pin down what sustainability is. Multiple sources indicate that there is no one accepted definition of sustainability that individuals or institutions can use as guidance, and inconsistent terminology and meanings make it difficult to both make choices and accurately measure impact. 40.5% of institutional investors confirmed that the lack of standardised terms and reporting holds them back from integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors into their investment processes, and this is more pressing as divestment continues to grow globally. It’s great to take money out of exploitative or unsustainable industries, but how are people supposed to know where to redirect it instead?

When it comes to investors, there are also often rifts between investor desires and advisors recommendations. Advisors struggle to communicate sustainability in a way that matches clients’ personal preferences, meaning that fewer than 10% of financial advisors are highly interested in ESG investing and 60% have little or no interest, compared to 75% of investors who want to invest sustainably. That’s a lot of money that’s currently going to waste because people are struggling to clearly communicate and find common ground.

Challenge 2: too much complexity

Many institutions list complex criteria for investors, humanitarians, or consumers to use when making sustainable choices, making it difficult to understand and near impossible to truly quantify impact.

For example:

  • Investors are overwhelmed by large amounts of sustainability data, which often doesn’t connect to the social or environmental causes that they care about.
  • ESG ratings systems can be inconsistent in terms of scope (measuring emissions globally, regionally or by sector will tell you very different things), and the data they use can be gathered over infrequent time frames. At the same time, various rating systems contradict other sustainability frameworks, depending on what is being measured, making it hard to understand what is actually sustainable.
  • The PRI asks investors, individuals, and institutions to review potential clean energy investments based on 4 business types, 7 mandatory conditions and up to 16 voluntary ones, as well as 3-5 financial conditions (depending on whether an organisation directly provides energy-efficient services or services to energy-efficiency firms). Find that confusing to read? It’s even more confusing to apply in real life.
  • Research by Deutsche Bank indicates that complicated emissions information can lead to misunderstandings. For example, in 2017 Apple appeared to be 150 times more environmentally friendly than Samsung when looking at scope 1 and 2 emissions, despite their similar operating models. However, if you look at the companies’ complete range of operations the firms’ emissions come out as equal due to Apple’s manufacturing in China, making their scope 3 emissions 300 times greater than Samsung. (scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from owned or controlled sources, scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy, scope 3 emissions are all indirect emissions not included in scope 2 that occur in the value chain of the company).

Challenge 3: too little contribution

Potential sustainable investors who rely on external sustainable ratings systems can be confused when attempting to invest according to their values, as how these systems make judgements can vary so much. Unless investors take the time to examine each system’s underlying assumptions and the factors that lead to their judgements, it’s difficult to know who to trust.

For example, the Wall Street Journal highlighted how Tesla can simultaneously rank in the top, middle, and bottom of all carmakers worldwide based on environmental issues, depending on which issues you’re looking at. One agency gave Tesla the highest environmental rating due to considering the carbon produced by Tesla vehicles and Tesla’s cleantech opportunities, while another gave Tesla the lowest environmental rating because it ignores vehicle emissions and focuses only on emissions from production facilities.

These inconsistent applications of sustainability factors and measurements only adds to the confusion already caused by not understanding the SDGS and being bombarded with complex information. It leads to individuals and organisations not being able to properly contribute to achieving the SDGs, as they have no clear understanding of how best to utilise their investments to support change.

Ultimately this begs the question, how is anyone supposed to know what to do with their resources in order to actually do some good?

Some solutions

Increasing awareness

Everyone needs to be talking about sustainability, including governments, public bodies and the private sector. If the SDGs provide a framework through which to better understand sustainable efforts, especially for non-experts, then it’s important to get people more familiar with them. UBS is working to push this by acting as founding partner for the #TOGETHERBAND initiative, a collaboration with the UN, Project Everyone, and the Bottletop Foundation, which aims to raise the profile of the SDGs through digital media and awareness campaigns.

For each SDG, the #TOGETHERBAND initiative partners an influential celebrity ambassador with a dedicated goal expert and a number of high-profile “goalkeeper influencers” to highlight the social, environmental, or economic problem each Global Goal addresses, alongside examples of how the public can act to further advance its fulfillment.

At the same time sustainable fashion brand Bottletop will produce 17 #TOGETHERBAND wristbands, each in a different colour for every SDG. Their designs utilise upcycled materials and sustainable packaging, are ethically produced, and impact local communities and artisans at each stage of the production process. All profits generated from the sale of these bands will be dedicated to NGOs aligned with the SDGs.

#TOGETHERBAND’s campaign aims to raise public awareness of the SDGs through buying, wearing, and sharing the purpose of wristbands, with people being able to display the individual Global Goals they support through their colour choices. At the same time educational materials, documentary videos, and details of projects underway to tackle each SDG will be available to share and support on social media.

Current experts who have already agreed to join the projects include:

  • George Daley, Dean of Harvard Medical School whose research in stem cell biology aims to improve treatments for genetic and malignant diseases
  • Donald Sadoway, professor at MIT and leading expert on creating sustainable liquid metal batteries for gridscale electricity storage
  • Joseph Sanberg, founder of CalEITC4Me, a Californian state-wide outreach program for low-income families, and social entrepreneur
  • Yves Daccord, humanitarian and director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross

Simplifying, standardising, and mainstreaming sustainability reporting

It is clear that one of the largest obstacles to achieving real change is a lack of understanding or consistent reporting around sustainability. Clear and digestible sustainability data is vital for the public, institutions and governments to be able to properly back sustainable policy, investment and consumption habits.

Current sustainable data collection methods risk worsening the confusion we currently have, by exploring using big data and AI to gather fragmented and varied sustainability information without realising that normal people need simple, clear, consistent facts and figures. Corporate financial data has standard codified methods of reporting. Sustainable data needs the same standardisation.

UBS argues that an alternative approach would be to make necessary sustainable data more straightforward and easy to digest so that people can better understand how it relates to their choices.

The truism “less is more” would indeed apply in this case provided the data is simple, ubiquitous, consistent, relevant, and readily understandable to consumers, customers, investors, partners, and competitors. We acknowledge that many initiatives to streamline corporate sustainability disclosures to ensure they are consistent and readily understandable have not succeeded. A unified approach is needed across a range of companies, investors, sustainability-setting bodies, regulators, and ESG ratings agencies.

Customising options depending on priorities

The financial world hasn’t yet changed its methods to match the way that clients want to contribute to environmental and social solutions. By changing their approaches, some of the complexities and barriers that people face could be removed (most notably the complexity and lack of understanding around impact investing), leaving people enabled to actually invest in development that they care about. Those in the financial world need to properly understand sustainable and human rights efforts in order to help investors push these goals forward.

For example, UBS Investment Bank in the US has created opportunities for investors to locate firms that support LGBTQ+ employees (in line with SDG 10 of reducing inequalities) by tracking firms that score highest on the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index. This level of customisation needs to become a common approach so that investment can specifically be directed into the people and organisations who are driving change and actually doing the work. This would mean that an investor’s concerns across multiple fields, such as clean energy, sustainable cities or reducing inequality, could be properly utilised to create personalised options that get the right investment into the hands of those who can use it to truly do good.

Being collective and collaborative, not competitive

This isn’t new information, but efforts to move towards a more sustainable, equal and just society need to be collaborative. Collaborations do exist (The Audacious Project and Co-Impact are two great examples), but more is needed.

In the philanthropy space development impact bonds (DIBs) and social impact bonds (SIBs) are new models that have been developed. These bonds allow philanthropists, investors, bilateral and multilateral donors as well as the private sector to work together, funding social and environmental projects. For example: The Wellcome Trust has partnered with multiple financial institutions, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and African and Asian development banks to provide research and development funding for sustainable sanitation solutions in various poor urban communities. Additionally, a new (and to date the biggest) education DIB has been launched in India by HRH Prince Charles’s British Asian Trust, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, UBS Optimus Foundation and Tata Trusts, together with the Comic Relief, the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Mittal Foundation, and British Telecom, creating a coalition of public and private sector partners coming together to change the futures of 300,000 children.

These examples are still currently the exception, not the norm. UBS’s hopes are that successful future collaborations can be achieved through

  • Identifying clear objectives that match investors sustainable and social concerns
  • Consistent, measurable impact targets that can be easily understood
  • Links to willing providers of long term investment (for example pensions funds, of which many around the world are currently divesting and could be diverted into these new ventures)
  • Advocacy of the benefits of collaboration, namely achieving better solutions for more people, to motivate people to move away from an ‘output-based aid’ way of thinking and towards an understanding of long term progress.

Ultimately, the Sustainable Development Goals are achievable. We have the technology and the resources to see each goal become a reality, we just need to make it happen. UBS’ research shows that if we increase awareness, improve methods and encourage cross-sector, collaborative action, then we can see incredible change come to fruition across the globe. I believe we can do it, so I’m going to keep talking about it until we see that belief become fully realised.