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Sustainable Development Goals: The five “most important” SDGs and what to do about them

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were unanimously adopted by 193 countries on 25 September 2015 in New York.

The 17 Goals, part of the 2030 Agenda, are an evolution of the partially successful Millennium Development Goals as they are more balanced between environmental, social and economic needs. They are also more inclusive: developed countries and the private sector are now called to actively contribute, implement the goals, but also to take its execution as a business opportunity.

One year later, the real challenge is to implement the SDGs through good projects and initiatives. The first issue is the large number of objectives, then the 169 targets and an initial list with more than 230 indicators.

Some organizations have already tried to “holistically” implement and report all 17 goals, but the early reports already show that there were not really relevant actions being implemented to contribute with some of the objectives. Only developed or large countries can really implement and report the whole SDGs.

Business, regional and local governments and even smaller countries should focus on a few SDGs to make a difference. As we recently wrote, we need to kiss: Keep it simple stupid.

The SDG Compass, for instance, developed by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), UN Global Compact and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), with the SUST4IN modest contribution, outlines five simple steps for companies to maximize their contribution to the global goals, which we would summarize as:

  • read and understand the SDGs
  • prioritize four to six most important SDGs to which the business can make a difference
  • set and communicate concrete commitments – at least internally
  • implement them by involving your stakeholders and partnering with them
  • review the priorities and report progress every year – publicly and independently verified if you can

But what are the “four to six most important SDGs”?

It naturally depends on the organization and its context, but we now have a small sample of what people think: as part of the registration to the Sustainable Development Goals “One Year On” Conference we asked the following question:
What are the most important SDGs to your organization?

The initial response (see chart below) shows that there is no huge variation between the answers and no clear tail, but that is in part because 18.6% of the respondents marked all the 17 SDGs as “the most important”. Which is also interesting, but on the other side 81.4% of the respondents understand that some focus is needed. In any case we can argue that the responses show that there are five most important SDGs to organizations in general:

SDG 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Considered the most important for organizations, clearly ahead of the others. The “inertia” factor of being number one – for the right reasons – can partially explain the pole position, but it is yet to be seen if organizations in general can make a real impact on ending poverty or, if it is the best way for an organization to devote its scarce resources. In any case, as we quoted in our 2015 SDG Series (see link above): “One simple measure, as suggested by the CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, and Mo Ibrahim, is to actually pay taxes and stop with corruption, especially in developing countries. A next step is to “to provide financial and environmental information to public authorities, country-by-country, profits made, taxes paid, subsidies received, carbon emissions and environmental impact and revenue.””.

SDG 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Climate change is top of the business agenda now. The World Economic Forum puts the risk of failure to address climate change as the number one global risk, ahead of financial crises, mass migration or terrorism. Mainstream investors, such as Blackrock, are pushing companies to change. The surprise here is that Goal 13 was not considered number one, but it is clearly number two.  Organizations can easily take actions by taking less air travels for instance, but a more complete approach would involve Assess, Report, Commit and Support (see more on the 2015 SDG Series linked above).

SDG 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

Health is also among the top 5 and indeed organizations can directly contribute to Goal 3.  As we mention in the 2015 SDG Series: The first action any business can take is to comply with the local and international mandatory requirements and, regardless, look after the health, safety and wellbeing of its employees and customers, as appropriate. Health and Safety (H&S) is regulated, even in very poor countries, but not necessarily enforced. Good H&S management is well known. There are global standards such as OHSAS 18001 (soon ISO 45001) or the International Labour Organization (ILO) occupational safety and health Guidelines.

SDG 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

It is interesting that Goal 11 topped the list: it shows that our small sample already see cities as a key challenge, but probably also as an opportunity for sectors such as construction and IT. As we wrote last year, “SDG11 is actually more about the opportunities for business and real contribution when selected to build or rebuild cities. Business can modestly contribute in any case. For example: Promote the use of public transport; Adopt flexible working hours and home based work to reduce the impact on urban mobility; Build and use “green buildings”, such as the LEED-certified buildings; Properly manage waste and wastewater; Create and sponsor public spaces.

SDG 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Finally, the fifth “most important” is Goal 6. No big surprise because water is arguably the most urgent challenge we face, it is key to end poverty and to provide healthy lives. Organizations can normally make a direct impact and there are plenty of initiatives, standards and tools to be used. Organizations can start for instance by properly measuring and optimizing its water consumption. But most of the impact may be hidden elsewhere: The water footprint of a country, individual, business or of its products goes well beyond the direct water consumption and should include the impact of water pollution as well. Last but not least, SDG6 is an enormous opportunity for the Water industry and its suppliers.

Our survey then put the SDG8, SDG9, SDG2 and SDG7 tied in sixth place. We could argue that SDG8 and even SDG12 are more relevant, to business at least, but we leave that to the Conference.


The SDGs are a global challenge. Business and other organizations, also in developed countries, are requested to support. 17 SDGs can be too distracting: focus is needed to make a real impact – and not to “cause harm”. What is more important for each organization will depend on a proper materiality analysis. Each industry, each organization and in fact each installation – namely if located in different countries – are different worlds. The five top SDGs mentioned on our small (59 respondents from 7 countries, mostly from Spain) and somewhat biased (Sustainability/CSR Directors/managers/experts in general) survey however are already a good start – and just that – for a materiality analysis.

However, contrary to the adoption of the SDGs themselves, we do not seek a unanimous approach: lawyers for instance may well start by the “less important” Goal 16: “…provide access to justice for all…”!

Learn more at the Sustainable Development Goals "One Year On" Conference in Madrid on 22 September. Click on the botton on the right for more info and registration.

Madrid, 22 de Septiembre