Millennials Want True Commitment to SDGs, Companies Can Start by Listening

Students sitting on bleachers looking off at a speaker

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) challenges companies and governments to achieve goals including poverty reduction, health improvements, climate action and more by 2030. The goals were shaped in partnership with non-profits and businesses. They can empower business and city leaders to adopt socially responsible practices, building trust with customers and citizens and making real changes in our world.

In our contemporary connected social landscape, social compromise is key. Millennials, in particular, demand a public commitment to supporting sustainable development from businesses and governments. Corporate Citizenship recently performed a landmark study of millennials, and discovered that 81% believe that the private sector has a very important role to play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. But less than 30% actually believe that businesses will put sustainability first. “There is a major gap –a trust deficit– between the expectations of Millennials and the reality of business today”, the report concludes.

It’s not just consumers: research by PWC shows that more and more investors and big corporations assess Environmental, Social and Governance criteria to decide whether to do business with or invest in a company. According to extensive surveysemployees choose and stay with socially responsible companies. Demonstrating commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals differentiates brands, engages clients and workers, and shows that organizations take the long-term future of their company and their society seriously.

If sustainable development is so important, and organizations are spending more each year on responsible practices, where is this trust deficit coming from?

Where is this trust deficit coming from?

With regards to the broad framework of Corporate Social Responsibility, experts have long said that we must distinguish between substantive and symbolic CSR. While companies who invest in substantive social values truly make their business practices sustainable, other businesses seek only the positive press that comes from corporate social responsibility, make only small symbolic changes and hide their unsustainable business practices. Some call this greenwashing –and say that companies who fake sustainability will see their strategy backfire, as customers and employees see through them and lose even more trust.
The sustainable development goals ask even more from organizations than classical frameworks like corporate social responsibility. Rather than focusing on doing less bad, the goals ask companies to actively contribute to social good. And that means that when companies “SDG-wash” by “positively contributing to some of the SDGs while ignoring the negative impact of others”, stakeholders notice.
Corporate Citizenship co-founder Mike Tuffrey says this is a particular danger with the SDGs, as they are so broad that organizations may be tempted to “cherry-pick” easy or obvious goals rather than seeing the goals as “a comprehensive framework”.

Active Listening

So how can companies really engage with the Sustainable Development Goals, in the authentic way that their customers, employees and investors want?
One answer is to listen to those stakeholders. Customers and citizens have a wealth of knowledge on actions that could really improve the products they use and the communities they are part of. And the millennial generation are, Corporate Citizenship say, “potentially powerful brand advocates or critics whose voices are amplified through social media networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter”. 70% of millennial influences “believe it is their responsibility to share feedback with companies” which they do primarily over social media.
Citibeats collects and analyses this data, tracking the social concerns people share on public platforms, from Facebook and Twitter to personal blogs, local news pages and comments on big news websites. Organizations who are willing to hear what citizens have to say can continually make improvements in their sustainable development strategy. Approaching Sustainable Development Goals from an authentic, trust-based and open standpoint will make businesses a true force for change.