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Our Insights 8 Oct 2019

Systems Transformation and the SDGs

By Stefan Jimenez
Wind turbines on a grass field during golden hour

© Karsten Würth on Unsplash

The decade to 2030: How can companies help deliver systems transformation to achieve the SDGs?

With just shy of a decade left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), two things are clear: systems transformation, instead of incremental change, is needed to address the challenges ahead; and we need better ways of measuring company performance and collective progress on the systems changes needed to meet the 17 SDGs of the UN 2030 Agenda.

These two points were the key themes of an event hosted jointly by the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA), World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) during NYC Climate Week 2019. Expanding on new and upcoming papers and reports by each of the three groups, Seven Transformations for Benchmarking Companies on the SDGs, the Vision 2050 Refresh and Six Transformations to Achieve the SDGs respectively, speakers and attendees discussed why businesses and society are struggling to deliver on the SDGs and how we can rise to the challenge of meeting the goals in just ten years.

Despite efforts to date, no country is currently on track to achieving all the goals by 2030 and according to our 2019 GlobeScan-SustainAbility survey, sustainability experts continue to believe progress remains inadequate. That same survey found that performance has been poorest and action is most urgent on SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities, SDG 14: Life Below Water, SDG 15: Life on Land and SDG 13: Climate Action, perhaps some of the goals requiring the greatest systems transformation to address. Meanwhile, research published by WBCSD in 2018 shows that four out of five companies have identified priority SDGs related to their business, but only 6% have set new targets related to the SDGs even though the majority of companies who responded believe it is important to do so. This may be because only one in five companies considers the SDGs as very important in the context of access to capital, indicating low levels of investor pressure.

Despite efforts to date, no country is currently on track to achieving all the goals by 2030 and according to our 2019 GlobeScan-SustainAbility survey, sustainability experts continue to believe progress remains inadequate.

There is a shared approach and consensus among the organizations that companies need a new perspective on how they develop, manage and measure their impacts. As one speaker from the SDSN put it, “[In order to achieve the SDGs] we have to think about pathways so that [the vision we’re trying to achieve] makes sense to everyone.”

What each pathway or systems transformation could look like is detailed in each of the organizations’ reports (and the infographics here show an overview of the key systems transformations proposed and how they interact), but how does a company contribute to these transformations in a tangible way and how can that contribution be measured? 

Depiction of the SDSN’s Six Systems Transformations Framework


SDSN Systems Transformation graphic

To answer that question and help drive systems transformation, the WBA plans to produce a range of freely available benchmarks by 2023 which compare the performance of 2,000 companies on the systems transformations needed to meet the SDGs. You can see each of the WBA’s systems transformations mapped to the SDGs here.

Table of WBA’s Seven Systems Transformations Compared to the SDGs


One speaker from the WBA explained that “while comparing performance against business peers has always been the purpose of benchmarks, capturing transformational change [is much more challenging].”

“All is moving in the right direction today but it is too slow. If we are looking at climate change we really need to focus on food and agriculture, energy and transport…[and to measure our progress in those areas] we need both quantitative and qualitative elements. So, [to benchmark SDG performance we need to] measure a company’s emissions, but we also need qualitative aspects such as not investing in fossil fuels and potential stranded assets.”

Echoing the sentiment, one attendee shared that “as part of a business it feels like there is not enough pressure [today] to do systems change — it feels like we could do incremental change [and meet societal expectations].”

Many businesses who actively work on sustainability, however, are sceptical that another benchmark or ranking will be the solution to driving systems transformation. Company raters and rankers operate in a crowded space already (as our published and upcoming Rate the Raters research discusses) and many corporate sustainability teams see the resources required to engage in each ranking as a constraint on the progress they are able to make on sustainable development through action. Moreover, given the clock to 2030 is ticking and the WBA’s benchmarks will not be published for another 3-4 years, some businesses have already tuned out.

Although the added value of benchmarking company performance on contribution to systems transformation and the SDGs remains to be seen, it is clear that business as a whole has struggled in defining its role in realizing the SDGs. The emergence and success of Future Fit, a foundation helping companies to define their targets and contributions to the SDGs in a more consistent way by translating them into meaningful actions for business, is a testament to that. An overview of their model which focuses on businesses creating systems value can be seen here.

Depiction of Future Fit’s System Value Model


As one speaker from the SDSN noted, “The Paris Agreement means we need to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Too many companies today think they are going to form part of the 20% of emissions, say, that will still be allowed, as opposed to the 80% that have to go away.”

The systems transformation frameworks serve the purpose of providing a clearer vision to companies of a sustainable society in the future and what their role is in delivering it. As the 2020 decade approaches we know that pressure to achieve these transformations will only grow and that part of that pressure may come from benchmarking businesses based on that vision.

Learn more about progress on the SDGs by reading Evaluating Progress on the SDGs: GlobeScan-SustainAbility Survey 2019 or watching the webinar.

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