A month ago, the United Nations came out with its Sustainable Development Goals and a few companies started associating their names with these goals as a way to boost their relevance and profile. In this article I look some good and bad examples of how organisations are communicating their contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals. The companies I look at are Philips, GlaxoSmithKline and Novo Nordisk.

Screenshot from the UN Sustainable Development Goals website
Screenshot from the UN Sustainable Development Goals website

For a quick context, the United Nations (UN) held its Sustainable Development Summit from 25-27 September 2015 in New York. The event’s major output was the agreement of new global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Considered the next stage after the Millennium Development Goals, the process first began with Rio+20 and then scaled up in January 2015 before being completed in August and finalised and adopted in September. 17 goals were created, with several sub-goals within them to leave 169 in grand total. More details are on the UN’s Sustainable Development website.

The criteria for choosing Philips, Novo Nordisk and GlaxoSmithKline is simple. Every few days I read news and updates in worldwide corporate sustainability and these organisations were the first three I saw that talked about the global SDGs.

Good case practice: Philips, modest and focused, working towards 3 goals

The first company I saw engage in the SDGs was Philips, with an infographic in The Guardian Sustainable Business. Philips clearly express its focus on three goals.

For goal 3 “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”, it has raised awareness with campaigns in Africa, formed partnerships with the UN and other not-for-profits, built collaboration networks for non-communicable diseases in South-East Asia, run special outreach mobile health clinics in India and even built private health infrastructure in Kenya.

For goal 7 “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”, it is primarily promoting new products such as its solar powered light it is distributing in Africa.

Finally, goal 12 “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”, it has chosen to focus on its achievements in waste minimisation and operational efficiency.

Easy to read, engaging and simple, the infographic captured the highlights very well and presented Philips as a modest and focused organisation working towards the SDGs. It also presented Philips as pushing above the weight of its core business, and taking a wider role.

Mediocre case practice: Novo Nordisk, extensive and thorough pulication, working towards 5 goals

Novo Nordisk is a global healthcare company headquartered in Denmark focused on diabetes, haemophilia, growth disorders and obesity. I have been acquainted with this organisation since 2008 when I worked for IMD Business School. They struck me as an innovative, professional and progressive business. Seeing their best case practice in the WWF International Climate Innovation Case Studies gave me the first insight into their strong sustainability side, too. At the heart is the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) principle, which focuses it on generating value for stakeholders and shareholders.

Every three months, Novo Nordisk curates “TBL Quarterly”, a publication of new perspectives and personal stories that demonstrate how TBL supports long-term value creation. The September issue features “Global health check – Are we in shape for the next 15 years?” which shows how preventing and treating type 2 diabetes supports the achievement of many of the SDGs.

"World Diabetes Day" by Oskar Annermarken on Flickr
“World Diabetes Day” by Oskar Annermarken on Flickr

Goals 1 “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” and 8 “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all” are understood as one and the same. Novo Nordisk argue that the requirement for ongoing treatment for diabetes puts sufferers at risk of falling into poverty because of medicine and healthcare service affordability.

For goal 5 “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, it tells a story about two programs that educate and empower pregnant women with gestational diabetes to improve their health and their child’s.

Goal 16 “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” demonstrates how the company entered Iraq and established a specialised diabetes centre in the dangerous war-torn area.

Finally, for goal 17 “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development”, the newsletter has an article showcasing its key NGO partnerships in the African region.

This content is longer and more comprehensive than Philips but demonstrates serious credibility by defending and justifying its claims through multi-page articles against each SDG goal. A company sustainability publication is already impressive, but theming the issue around its entire SDG contribution can be a lasting output for Novo Nordisk. However, information overload is also a problem and I was never going to read past the introduction into the full 24 page document.

It sort of forgives the company from saying that “although only one of the 17 proposed goals is directly focused on health, health is inextricably linked to the others”. While this is of course true, any health sector organisation could also argue this. But any energy company, educational institution or maybe even property developer could make such broad claims. And these days, sweeping remarks only make people more and more suspicious.

Bad case practice: GlaxoSmithKline, working towards all goals but not explaining how

Unfortunately for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) it also makes the same statement, but the comparative lack of evidence for them in its September article in the Shared Value Initiative leaves the reader with a gap. GSK elaborates on three great things it is doing for the SDGs:

  1. Reinvested 20 percent of its profits from sales in least-developed countries into improved healthcare infrastructure and training health professionals through the support of not-for-profits and their work with government.
  2. Persisted for 30 years on a malaria vaccine that is finally set to break through.
  3. Responded swiftly to last year’s Ebola outbreak with humanitarian support to affected regions via its numerous NGO partnerships. Such support included medical equipment and supplies. Overall, 870,000 people were supported by the programs.
"Ebola must go" by UNMEER on Flickr
“Ebola must go” by UNMEER on Flickr

Three excellent initiatives worthy of praise. However, with a headline about how it is already tackling all the SDGs, the article falls short. These initiatives clearly hit goal 3, “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”, but there is no coverage of the other 16.

It is only by looking at the GSK Sustainable Development webpages do you clearly see that actually, GSK is tackling quite a good spread of goals.


The three examples have clarified my perspective on what corporate leadership with respect to the SDGs looks like.

  • Unostentatious: Concise simple facts, without sweeping claims or long-drawn connections.
  • Broad in scope: Goes beyond its direct sphere of influence and considers its wider responsibility as a corporate citizen. Also works towards a range of SDGs.
  • Credible: Defensible through evidence of strong programs and key results achieved.
  • Good marketing: As above, but also visual and not too text-heavy.
  • Aligned: Perhaps the most important one, however, is that all three organisations have aligned their sustainability strategies and initiatives to the SDGs. Alignment improves our chances as a global community to achieve the SDGs. Chapeau.

What do you think?

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