The Sustainable Development Goals – a framework for everyone, even SMEs - RSA

The Sustainable Development Goals – a framework for everyone, even SMEs


  • Picture of Carolina Karlstrom FRSA
    Carolina Karlstrom FRSA
    Senior Lead Environment & Climate Change at SGN. Member of the Board of Trustees Renewable World
  • Future of Work
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What impact can SMEs have on the Sustainable Development Goals? A lot, says Carolina Karlstrom. In this blog she explains why and suggests some simple actions SMEs can take.

There is no universal definition of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). It is, however, generally undisputed that the overwhelming majority of private-sector businesses in the world are SMEs and that they account for a very large share of world economic activity in both developed and developing countries. Small and medium enterprises make up 99% of businesses in the UK, and they make a significant contribution to the UK economy. In fact, the contribution that SMEs will make across the top 10 UK cities is forecast to hit £217 billion by 2020.
SMEs are not a group of businesses to be forgotten or ignored when it comes to implementing something as important as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I would even argue that the SDGs can only be achieved if SMEs are on board and can make a useful contribution.

Why should SMEs care about the Sustainable Development Goals?

SMEs have a leading role to play in meeting the most “economic” of the SDGs; like promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment, and decent work for all (Goal 8) as well as promoting sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation (Goal 9).
We live in a changing world, where the enlightened consumer wants to make sure that they buy products with less packaging and plastic, that have been produced and manufactured in a way that does not harm the environment, and where the people producing it are paid a decent wage. Our world is one where people are increasingly concerned about the state of the coral reefs and the dwindling number of bees, about the amount of plastic on deserted islands and about climate change, drought, and flooding. If a business wants to win tenders or corporate or government projects, attract loyal customers, or appeal to an engaged workforce like the so-called Millennials, looking at the SDGs is useful – even essential.

The SME challenge

The biggest concerns for SMEs are usually cost and return on investment. Another big challenge is lack of resources and time. It is, therefore, very important to recognise that interventions that reduce a business’s negative impact, like reducing carbon emissions, can also be a saving in cost.

There is also an argument that business unusual is a requirement for long term business survival. We need to change how we do business if we are going to tackle the environmental and social challenges that threaten us the most.

Engaging with the SDGs will provide a clear way to differentiate a business and offer a way to stand out: they provide a longer-term vision, so a small business doesn't need to invest resource thinking up one for themselves.
If the understanding and the interest is there, the question becomes: how can we make the SDGs accessible to SMEs?

Making the SDGs accessible to SMEs

A first step for a small business may be as simple as looking at the 17 goals and identifying the top two or three that really resonate and can be used to engage staff and other stakeholders in discussions, to create buy-in from the beginning.

The size of an SME makes it easier to implement new principles, new ways of doing things, to measure impacts. And it’s possible that we may also see results quicker than in big corporate organisations.
Alongside Goals 8 and 9, there are lots of other goals that matter to SMEs; below I suggest a few simple solutions for how a small business could implement these in practice.


Goal 12 is to ensure responsible consumption and production. It includes a target to substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction and recycling by 2030. Implementing actions to achieve this target could help save money. A simple audit to see where money is being spent, what waste it relates to and what you can do to prevent it is the first step for developing a reduction plan.

Goal 3 is to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all. It’s a no-brainer that healthy staff are more productive, and happier, staff. Encourage staff to go for a lunch walk: ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking’ as Nietzsche said. Ask your staff what other ideas they have for activities that offer them a break and reenergise them during the day. 

Goal 13 is to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. There are recent reports that suggest we are on course for an average 2-degree increase in global warming. There are several small things you can do to take responsibility for your carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. Added to those of your business partners, supply chain, competitors and clients it will make a difference. These things could include creating a Green Travel Policy to encourage your staff to use more sustainable forms of travel; holding business meetings via video or Skype, and having an open attitude to home working to cut down on staff travel; or doing a simple energy audit to identify how you can save energy – did I mention this can also save money?

Goal 17 encourages partnerships for the goals, and in my view, collaboration is key for a successful sustainability approach.Maybe there is a local charity that your organisation is close to and that you could approach for a conversation on how you can support their work?


Your business – our future

It is easy to feel overwhelmed when you look at the Sustainable Development Goals, even the name sounds a bit daunting, but the beauty of the SDGs is that they are connected to each other. Focusing on one or two could very well lead to support of other goals or targets. I hope I have showed here that the SDGs are more accessible than you might think, even if you are an SME.

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