An Interlude on the Sustainable Development Goals

March 5, 2020 | | 0 Comments


Today we’re going to talk about measuring social impact. We’re going to start by diving into the Sustainable Development Goals, and then wrap it up looking at some ways to measure social impact.

In 2015, the United Nations came up with 17 Sustainable Development Goals as part of their 2030 Agenda. At one level, the sustainable development goals are designed to be measured against these metrics set for 2030, but to do this, they created a set of goals which are broad and easy to understand.

What I’ve found is that they’re a great tool for thinking about social impact, and useful framework for discussing the impact that you’re making. Actually, a lot of have people have found this, and they’ve become the gold standard for categorizing the impact you’re making.

The SDG’s are something I take into consideration when finding interesting stories for this podcast… partly because social entrepreneurship on its own has no governing definition. And by that, I mean, any company can call itself a social enterprise without any oversight – or any metric of qualifying what their social impact actually is.

If you think about a non-profit for example, that is well defined and has specific requirements baked into its legal structure. The term 501(c)(3) relates to the specific section of the US tax code, and the 3 is one of 29 types of tax-exempt organizations. Another example is the b-corp designation which is a certification provided by the organization B-Labs. A social enterprise has no such legal definition or body certifying its validity.

So, the Sustainable Development Goals become a useful tool for qualifying the impact that a social enterprise is making. They are certainly not the only system, but they are the most commonly used.

At a high level, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are:

1 – No Poverty
2 – Zero Hunger
3 – Good Health and Well-Being
4 – Quality Education
5 – Gender Equality
6 – Clean Water and Sanitation
7 – Affordable and Clean Energy
8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth
9 – Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
10 – Reduced Inequalities
11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities
12 – Responsible Consumption and Production
13 – Climate Action
14 – Life Below Water
15 – Life on Land
16 – Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
17 – Partnerships for the Goals

So, those are the 17 goals. I actually, want to dive into these goals in a bit more detail to give you a better picture of what they mean. This information is coming directly from the United Nations’s website at

In more detail, the Sustainable Development Goals are:

  1. No Poverty. To end poverty in all its forms everywhere, because more than 700 million people, or 10% of the world population, still live in extreme poverty. Personally, one thing you can do to help end poverty is to donate what you don’t use. It’s huge, and there is a reason it’s number one on the list.
  2. Zero Hunger. To end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. Our food sources such as soil, freshwater, oceans, forests and other biodiversity are being rapidly degraded – and an estimated 821 million people were undernourished in 2017. Agriculture is the world’s largest employer, providing a livelihood for 40% of the world’s population. So, Zero Hunger means focusing on sustainability and nutrition. Also, 840 million people have no access to electricity worldwide, so energy poverty is also a barrier to reducing hunger. One thing you can do is to waste less food and support local farmers.
  3. Good Health and Well-being. To ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. 17,000 fewer children die each day than in 1990, but more than five million children still die before their fifth birthday each year. People will generally try to fit their impact into this category, but a large part of this goal is actually about reducing infant mortality. It also encompasses things like substance abuse, to death and injuries from road accidents, to access to healthcare. If you have children, one thing you can do is make sure you’re up to date on your vaccines. Since 2000, measles vaccines have averted nearly 15.6 million deaths.
  4. Quality Education. To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Over 265 million children are currently out of school and 22% of them are of primary school age. 617 million youth worldwide lack basic mathematics and literacy skills. The goal is about ensuring access to education and providing a safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environment. In most communities, there are opportunities for you to reach out and help educate or mentor others.
  5. Gender Equality. To achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Globally, 750 million women and girls were married before the age of 18 and at least 200 million women and girls in 30 countries have undergone female genital mutilation. Rights for women are still severely limited in many parts of the world, and the goals are geared towards ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere, including violence, fair wages, and providing equal opportunities for leadership at all levels in political, economic and public life. 1 in 3 women have experienced physical and or sexual violence, so do what you can to empower women and support equal rights.
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation. To ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. 1 in 4 health care facilities lacks basic water services, 3 in 10 people lack access to safely managed drinking water services and 6 in 10 people lack access to safely managed sanitation facilities. That’s 2.4 billion people lack access to basic sanitation services, such as toilets or latrines. Each day, nearly 1,000 children die due to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrheal diseases. This goal is about access to safe and affordable drinking water, as well as access to adequate sanitation and hygiene, and looking to improve water quality by reducing pollution and managing important ecosystems. Since water scarcity affects more than 40% of the world’s population, we can all take part in wasting less water.
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy. To ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. 13% of the global population still lacks access to modern electricity and 3 billion people rely on wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste for cooking and heating. Energy is also the dominate contributor to climate change, and responsible for about 60% of greenhouse gas emissions. The goals here are about increasing access to affordable energy, as well as improving energy from sustainable sources and energy efficiency. This means investing in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology. Personally, using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs can go a long way.
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth. To promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. The global unemployment rate in 2017 was 5.6%, down from 6.4% in 2000. The global gender pay gap stands at 23 per cent. This goal is about improving economic growth and productivity – and really develop activities that create jobs, improve access to financial services and encourage entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation. It’s also about reducing human trafficking and providing safe and secure working environments. With 1/5 of young people not in education, employment or training – the more you can help create job opportunities for youth, the more we’ll tackle this goal.
  9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure. To promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. Basic infrastructure like roads, information and communication technologies, sanitation, electrical power and water remains scarce in many developing countries, and 16% of the global population does not have access to mobile broadband networks. This goal is all about developing infrastructure. It’s about developing the research and sustainability and access to information so that people have the environment they need to succeed. Here’s where you can help by funding projects that provide basic infrastructure – as well as investing with micro-loan platforms such as Kiva.
  10. Reducing Inequality. To reduce income inequality within and among countries. The poorest 40% of the population earns less than 25% of the global income. As seen in other goals such as 1 No Poverty, 5 Gender Equality, and 8 decent work and economic growth – inequalities and discrimination create barriers to opportunities. The goals here are about income growth from the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the national average that promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status. It’s very broad, but basically adopting policies and regulations that help make the world more balanced. If you see an opportunity to support those who are marginalized or disadvantaged, then do something!
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities. To make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. Half of all people… 3.5 billion of us… live in cities, and that will increase to 5 billion by 2030. 883 million people live in slums. The world’s cities occupy just 3 per cent of the Earth’s land but account for 60-80 per cent of energy consumption and 75 per cent of carbon emissions. As of 2016, 90% of urban dwellers have been breathing unsafe air, resulting in 4.2 million deaths due to ambient air pollution. These goals are about adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services… as well as sustainable transportation and road safety. If you live in a city, what can you do to bike, walk or use public transportation?
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production. To ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. At our current growth rate, we’ll reach a global population of 9.6 billion by 2050… and we’ll need about 3 times as many planets like the one we have to maintain our current lifestyles. The website has some really cool stats for this one – such as “Less than 3 per cent of the world’s water is fresh (drinkable), of which 2.5 per cent is frozen in the Antarctica, Arctic and glaciers. Humanity must, therefore, rely on 0.5 per cent for all of man’s ecosystem’s and fresh water needs.” Or… If people worldwide switched to energy-efficient lightbulbs, the world would save US$120 billion annually. And the food sector accounts for around 30 per cent of the world’s total energy consumption and accounts for around 22 per cent of total Greenhouse Gas emissions. The goals have to do with sustainable consumption and production, as well as sustainable management of our natural resources. There are a lot of companies doing interesting work in this area, but quite often you need to dig a bit to find them. A quick shoutout to Heidi over at ConsciousCBUS… she’s got great tips on ConsciousCBUS on Instagram. If you’re not sure what you can do here, start with recycling. After that, the possibilities are endless.
  13. Climate Action. To take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy. This gets lots of attention, and rightly so. Global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) have increased by almost 50 per cent since 1990. The New York Times had a fascinating piece in October, “Rising Seas Will Erase More Cities by 2050, New Research Shows” , showing new projections for cities being underwater in the next 30 years. Basically Vietnam is toast, Bangkok, much of Shanghai, Mumbai. Even New Zealand is hit pretty hard. Many costal states in the US are impacted, including San Francisco and the Bay Area, and don’t have good measures in place for rising sea levels. The goals here are really to strengthen our ability to adapt to the coming natural disasters, and work hard to improve climate change measures to reduce the severity of the impact. We should be acting now as if our life depended on it. It might.
  14. Life with Water. To conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods, and pollution is threatening. Runoff from pollutants is creating massive dead zones in the ocean, killing the life that we need for our sustainability. Plus, the world’s largest collection of ocean garbage just keeps growing. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of plastic, floating trash halfway between Hawaii and California, has grown to more than 600,000 square miles, a study found. That’s twice the size of Texas. The goals here are to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution. One thing you can do is to avoid plastic bags to help keep the oceans clean. That’s in part why you’re seeing more initiatives to move away from them.
  15. Life On Land. To Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. Just as our oceans are being impacted, so is our land. Between 2010 and 2015, the world lost 3.3 million hectares of forest areas. Due to drought and desertification, 12 million hectares are lost each year (23 hectares per minute). Within one year, 20 million tons of grain could have been grown. Entire species are going extinct faster than ever. The goals here are about conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, in particular forests, wetlands, mountains and drylands. Go plant a tree and help protect the environment.
  16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. To promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. In 2018, the number of people fleeing war, persecution and conflict exceeded 70 million. Corruption, bribery, theft and tax evasion cost some US $1.26 trillion for developing countries per year; this amount of money could be used to lift those who are living on less than $1.25 a day above $1.25 for at least six years. Violence against children affects more than 1 billion children around the world and costs societies up to US$ 7 trillion a year. The goals here are to significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere, as well as to end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children. Reduce corruption, bribery, illicit financial and arms trade, and develop more transparent accountable institutions. Basically stand up for human rights.
  17. Partnerships for the Goals. To strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development. Working together we can not just share ideas, but also provide financial resources and investments for coordinated sustainable business practices. On an individual level, you can lobe your government to boost development financing. If together we achieve the UN’s SDG’s, we could create $12 trillion dollars worth of market opportunities and create 380 million new jobs by 2030.

And… that’s the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. That’s a ton of information, but hopefully also a good overview of how the UN is thinking about social change on a global level. I’ve been seeing the SDG’s more and more when people talk about measuring impact – they’re a common language, which is useful, but not the only way to categorize change out there. It may be the most popular, but keep in mind it was designed from the perspective of the UN and their ability to impact the most critical areas of development.

Another framework is the Inclusive Economy Metric Set, a collection of about 25 metrics from the B Impact Assessment, as developed by B Labs – the organization that certifies B-Corps. The one thing I really like about the B-Lab Metrics is that they have one for the US and one for global. Also, they’re more geared towards measuring and improving what your company does, in terms of how your company works.

For example, their Living Wage metric asks What % above living wage did your lowest-paid worker (excluding interns) receive during the last fiscal year?

And the Wage Equity Multiple questions is What is the multiple of your company’s highest compensated individual (including bonus) compared to
the lowest-paid full-time worker?

The questions by their assessment give you direction on exactly how to measure where you’re at. Again, B-Labs certifies companies as B-Corps, and this is one of the ways they measure and qualify your business to give you that certification.

One more framework I’d like to toss into the mix is the one used by – the company referred to as the Amazon of social good. They qualify products listed on their website, with one of 10 impacts. These are:

  1. Eco-Friendly
  2. Empowers Workers
  3. Vegan
  4. Women/Person of Color Owned
  5. Toxin-Free
  6. Gives Back
  7. Recycled/Upcycled
  8. Organic/GMO-Free
  9. Cruelty-Free
  10. Made in the USA

So again, a very different list, but one geared towards answering the question, what impact is achieved through the development of a product that you’re purchasing.

Bringing this all together, when you’re building a social enterprise, it’s very useful to familiarize yourself with these frameworks. Perhaps there is something you’re missing or something that you could do to improve your impact. It’s also helpful to know where you make your impact so that you can effectively communicate this to others.

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