CSR Europe's SDGs Masterclass : Linking SDGs  to Business Strategy

CSR Europe's SDGs Masterclass : Linking SDGs to Business Strategy

Today, more than ever, the private sector has been showing greater interest to further educate, inspire and advocate on how to best incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their practices, indexes, and standards. There is no doubt that the achievements of the SDGs require consistent involvement, dedication and a clear strategy to strengthen business awareness and stimulate action to advance sustainable business and contributions. 


The UN 2030 Agenda offers the world the opportunity to be transformational and ambitious in the approach to business contributions to aspire for a better world by 2030. The profit making nature of the private sector should no longer be in contradiction with sustainability when business embraces “profit with a purpose”, whereby “purpose” should be the SDGs. The Sustainable Development Goals not only provide a common language for the private and public sector to communicate, they also offer the world an opportunity to foster sustainable and inclusive growth and secure trust. A main tenet of the SDGs is that they re-distribute responsibility for economic and social progress from the exclusive realm of public agents including governments to a wider base of stakeholders that include corporations, asset owners and private investors. The SDG framework significantly increases the role of business and finance in advancing social, economic and human development. Business can be a major force for sustainable development and will play a decisive role in achieving the SDGs. Companies have a critical role to play as a source of finance, as a driver of innovation and technological development and as an engine of economic growth and employment.

Recognising the growing momentum in SDG frameworks is CSR Europe who, on March 21 and 22, held an SDG Masterclass to explore the theme: “SDGs with Business Transformation”. The Masterclass covered a variety of case studies, practical examples and exercises, but overall aimed to concretely discuss how the SDGs can be mainstreamed in private sector daily businesses, materiality and reporting; how to generate more interest from other private sector actors in implementing the SDGs among other companies and their clients; and share solutions and opportunities to generate traction on companies’ existing client base and demonstrate better services by embracing the SDGs.

SDGs and Business Transformation

The SDG Masterclass began by explaining how business strategy can be linked with the SDGs. The main focus was on helping to share a deeper understanding of the Goals and the role businesses need to play to achieve them. In addition, basic and best shared practices were imparted with the participants in an interactive learning setting.

For Stefan Crets, Executive Director at CSR Europe, “it’s not a question of IF we implement SDGs or not, the fact is how the SDGs can help us to better business”. Crets went on to further elaborate on CSR Europe’s mission to further develop its work in helping companies transform their business. He added that this can be achieved through collaboration: a fundamental variable in bringing about this much-needed change. In addition, Crets emphasized that the SDGs cannot be realised without meaningful engagement by companies: sustainable development makes good business sense. Business has a long history of integrating sustainability in its operations and developing solutions to tackle environmental and social challenges. Today, the SDGs can be viewed as a driver for change that can unleash innovation and fuel economic growth and development.

Of course, businesses can benefit from embracing the SDGs and embedding them in their growth strategies. The possibility for making the SDGs part of a new governing strategy is not a far-fetched reality. Providing the inspirational message of the session was Sevan Holemans, a social entrepreneur from the Belgian company, Generation T. Generation T is a dynamic, self-supporting and informal open network of youth from within both corporations as civil society. This platform was initiated in 2015 by the Belgian meeting point for sustainability The Shift and volunteer organization Act4Change. Holemans stressed on the new trends and movements by B Corporations and the interest of startups to begin their journey in a sustainable manner, and elaborated on the EU Sustainable Development Policy, which, according to the European Commission, seeks “to identify and develop actions to enable the EU to achieve a continuous long-term improvement of quality of life through the creation of sustainable communities able to manage and use resources efficiently, able to tap the ecological and social innovation potential of the economy and in the end able to ensure prosperity, environmental protection and social cohesion.”
Introducing the SDGs was the Chief of Leadership Programmes at United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), Ole Lund Hansen. He provided the participants with a history of the SDGs, along with a contextual framework of the Goals. For him, “SDG is a business agenda [wherein] business opportunities in delivering the SDGs can generate up to $12 Trillion worth of business value”. He also emphasized that over 60 opportunities can grow 2 to 3 times faster than the global economy as a result of the SDGs. For the UNGC to succeed, they must turn towards the global goals into local business. Lund Hansen also introduced participants to the Sustainable Development Commission, an independent advisor on sustainable development that provides an annual independent review of progress on sustainable development, and advice and capability building on a range of issues.

Lund Hansen also built on what former Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Business and Human Rights John Ruggie said, “When companies drive respect for human rights across their own operations and their global value chains, they generate an unprecedented large scale positive impact on the lives of people who may be most in need of the benefits of sustainable development.” It is time to adopt a principled approach to the SDGs, where companies must act responsibly in every opportunity.

Two case studies followed the UNGC presentation. By showcasing the efforts led by BASF and Enel, participants were provided with an insight into how these companies have tackled the SDGs and transformed their companies.

Why do the SDGs matter to BASF?
Senior Trade Manager, Hanna Luczkiewicz outlined how the SDGs are universal, inclusive and ambitious, which helped BASF defined its sustainability priorities in a common framework that reflect future policy direction and influence agenda-setting. Essentially, the Goals reflect stakeholder expectation. As such, BASF understood the link between the SDGs and company strategy and outlined steps to act more responsibly in their value chain, specifically around the Goals related to hunger, clean water and sanitation, renewable energy, good jobs and economic growth, innovation and infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production patterns, climate action and partnering.

As for Enel, their business model considers sustainability and innovation as an inseparable pairing, and views sustainability as an integral part of the way of doing business, constantly seeking out new and innovative solutions to reduce negative environmental impact. According to Diana Ferrari, Sustainability Planning and Performance Management, Enel has linked the SDGs to all sustainability processes. The company’s Materiality Matrix issues and priorities are linked to the SDGs and GRI standards, and the Enel Sustainability Plan includes opportunities to make positive contributions to the SDGs through core business activities, as well as to reduce current and any potential negative impact. Furthermore, Sustainability KPIs are linked to SDGs for driving, monitoring, and communicating progress.

Following these company presentations/case studies, Yvette Sweringa, Project Manager, Sustainable Business Exchange and the SDGs from CSR Europe, provided examples on how the SDGs can be linked together and the role that businesses have in addressing the Goals. She spoke about how the SDGs are not the sole duty of the government, but rather the private sector. She shared with the participants some recommendations for business, like how partnership helps to achieve SDG targets and business success. She also recommends that businesses focus on a few SDGs rather than all, and be able to understand and identify the chosen Goals in order to address the challenges of sustainable development. The eventual success of the new goals depends heavily on the actions which will be taken by all the players involved.

From Idea to Practice

The following day aimed to gather discussions on how can companies demonstrate their leadership on the SDGs and develop strong partnerships to drive positive change. The session also explored key challenges and steps to implement the SDGs, coupled by presentations and exercises to stimulate discussions.

How do the SDGs and CSR materiality relate? What does it mean to define priorities and why should companies consider materiality? These questions were addressed by Project Manager, Management and Transparency at CSR Europe, Rosanna Tufo. She began by defining materiality and its impact on a company’s strategy, as well as the process to determine what becomes material. Tufo also went on to differentiate between material issues and SDG priority areas. In addition, she outlined the steps in a typical materiality process and the importance in taking into consideration stakeholders’ perspectives. It makes sense for companies to link the SDGs to the identified material topics and business strategy of the company. Companies must recognise that they have the greatest impact on the SDGs if they are closely aligned with their business model and strategic priorities. It is important for all companies to conduct a materiality assessment to identify and prioritise the aspects of their business where they can have the greater impact on their customers and society. It is in this way that the SDGs and materiality assessment can complement one another.

Following the discussion on materiality was an overview on building the business case and engaging stakeholders, which was presented by Jacqueline Lim, Manager, Research and Special Projects at Volans. When it comes to stakeholders, engaging them at all levels helps to pursue enhanced communication, collaboration and commitments throughout all stages of development. From conducting a needs assessment to planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluation, stakeholder partnerships help to map and identify specific SDGs, targets and indicators with the national priorities and gap analysis in mind. It is widely acknowledged that multi-stakeholder partnerships are an important means for achieving global environmental, social, and economic progress. Some of the challenges that may arise include lack of collaboration, gradual progress (if any!), or lack of oversight. One method to try and tackle these issues is to endorse some form of regular self-reporting on compliance through annual reports or other publications. To enhance collaboration, more knowledge-sharing on good practices with regards to avoiding and managing conflicts of interest in due diligence processes would also be beneficial.

The evolving nature of the EU’s involvement with the SDGs was also discussed, with Lorena Sorrentino, Senior Project Manager, EU Relations at CSR Europe, elaborating on the directives. She explained that the European Union has played an active role in achieving sustainable development in Europe and is committed to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs within the EU and in development cooperation with partner countries. This commitment is to reflect many of the EU’s priorities for sustainable development. She also outlined the next steps whereby the EU will create a dynamic space for bringing together the different stakeholders from the public and private sectors, leading the Commission to launch a multi-stakeholder platform with a role in the follow-up and exchange of best practices on SDG implementation across sectors.

There is no doubt that communicating the SDGs is key to achieving global development targets. This was a recurring theme echoed by Pascale Wauters, Senior Manager Corporate Communications at CSR Europe. Communications plays a vital part of any sustainability strategy. When organisations ignore to communicate internally, they miss out on opportunities to implement the changes necessary to become more sustainable, specifically when employees become affected who are the most eager advocates of all sustainability efforts. Wauters defined the 5 ‘S’ approach to communicating on sustainability: stakeholders, storytelling, science-based, social media and internal super hero, and provided the participants with in-depth examples of how these variables affect any organisation’s communication plan. A main takeaway from Wauters’ presentation is to “know your stakeholders, meet with them, NO SDG-WASHING, link your brand values to your sustainability story and your internal superheroes are your number ambassadors!” The purpose of any concrete communication plan, specifically when it relates to the SDGs, is to inspire new communication means and tools and to bring different stakeholders to work together – bridging the gap between policy experts, campaigners and communication experts – and to build new partnerships for communicating.

Of course, when all communication plans have been put in place, stakeholders informed and audience impacted, the need to report and measure performance should follow. The ironic stance today is that while the sustainability movement is evolving and transparency is required, best practice for corporate reporting on the SDGs, however, has yet to be established. The United Nations Global Compact and Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) have formed a ground-breaking initiative to address this challenge. As explained by Pietro Bertazzi, Head of Sustainable Development at GRI, reporting on the SDGs aims to leverage the GRI Standards, the world’s most widely used sustainability reporting standards. As such, GRI and the UNGC launched “An Analysis of the Goals and Targets” to help simplify the seemingly perplexing world of sustainability disclosures for companies seeking to report their impact on the SDGs. The publication, An Analysis of the Goals and Targets, is an inventory of possible disclosures per SDG, at the level of the 169 targets. To facilitate transparency, a set of disclosures were developed – both qualitative and quantitative – based on globally accepted disclosure frameworks for businesses. These disclosures are linked to a menu of potential actions businesses can take to contribute to the SDGs.

All participants were then asked to map out their own action plans based on the Masterclass’ discussions, case studies, examples and new information shared. By personally linking the SDGs to business strategy, participants will familiarize themselves with the use of SDGs, identify any relevant links to business and communicate them openly.



by Khaled Kassar and Deena Tannous – Responsible Business

- Khaled Kassar is the Founder and CEO of CSR LEBANON and the annual CSR LEBANON FORUM @KhaledAkassar
- Deena Tannous is the Executive Director of CSR LEBANON and editor-in-chief of Responsible Business Quarterly Review. @DeenaMsh www.csrlebanon.com





All, 2018