November 21

Karen Newman

The Private Sector’s Perspective on Sustainable Development Goals

Universality has recently been identified as a necessary precursor to significant economic and social development around the world. The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development deemed the concept of universality as critical to promoting the 17 goals and targets included in the new development agenda focused on reducing poverty, promoting economic empowerment and deepening global partnerships.

What will it take to reach the business community with these goals? Do companies have an understanding of the notion of universality and how the goals link to their reporting and core business? How can we at the UN do a better job in communicating the SDGs to contribute to clear progress on reaching them?

With these questions in mind, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDG Fund) in collaboration with its Private Sector Advisory Group and the Global Compact examined these questions through a new report, Universality and the SDGs: A Business Perspective. The report, launched earlier this month at the United Nations, highlights varied perspectives from both large and small companies working to understand the commonality of the new development agenda.

Rather uniquely, the report focuses on the important notion of universality as a potential driver to impact engagement with the private sector. Universality in this context is defined by the UN as “applicable to all countries, while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development that respect national policies and principles.”

In the end, the findings, based on a year-long series of workshops and dialogues, reflected the inputs from more than 100 firms from a variety of regions and industry sectors. It was not surprising, perhaps, that while many companies were eager to address the new set of goals as critical to their business activities, they indicated that – especially in areas beyond philanthropic or corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity – they did not fully understand the depth of the goals. The report also suggests that while many firms are working in the areas of SDGs, their work is not always linked to the goals or articulated as such. For example, many companies issue reports based on environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) indicators or other industry metrics.

The findings of the report offer other conclusions. First, companies of all sizes and sectors have shown interest in engaging with the SDGs, but did not fully comprehend the complexity of the SDGs in context of their work or operations. While philanthropic and CSR programs remain customary for most firms, there would be an added value and clear benefits to framing sustainability initiatives through the SDGs – which provide an overarching and unified set of globally accepted goals and related targets. And the private sector is increasingly focused on making sustainability a top priority (although not necessarily in measurements outlined as the SDGs), meaning companies would support efforts that build stronger relationships with reputable “development sector” partners, including the UN, in a clear effort to leverage complementary expertise and, in some cases, potentially accelerate their initiatives.

Clearly, with the one-year anniversary of the 2030 agenda approaching in January, this new report reminds us that the UN can and should play a more active role in educating and informing companies on the “universal” dimensions of the SDGs. It is also important to continue to translate the new agenda into language and simplified reporting metrics that are palatable for businesses of all sizes – all of which means greater education on how companies can integrate the SDGs in their value chains, providing accessible resources and tools to promote learning, implementation and alignment across sectors.

We invite you to read this report and learn more about the work of the SDG Fund which is already investing in 23 countries, engaging a wide variety of stakeholders and building the case for greater engagement in development, especially with new actors like the important business community. Included in the report are brief case studies with the SDG Fund’s Private Sector Advisory Group which also highlight the value of universality and implementing the SDGs, initiating multi-stakeholder collaboration and efforts to harness the support of new actors.


Karen Newman is senior consultant for the Sustainable Development Goals Fund at the United Nations Development Programme. 

Photo of dialogue training at the H&M Training Centre in Dhaka, Bangladesh, courtesy of the SDG Fund.


business development, public-private partnerships