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Week 49: The SDGs are not sustainable
In this issue: ▸ The SDGs are not sustainable ▸ How the SDGs got hijacked ▸ The SDG problem with Sweden ▸ Experts: It’s time to dispose the SDGs ▸ H&M is an SDG leach ▸ And much more...
I see them in the reports, in the brochures, in the newspapers, on the conferences and very often in the pins on the dark suites. Glittering, circles of colours. Shiny, fashion-like.
Sometimes I wonder, if they could talk what would they say to all of the people who carry them like a badge of honour or members of an exquisite club. There are 17 of them, brothers and sisters, compiling a pact to save us all from ourselves. The SDGs.
The Sustainable Development Goals have been around for some time now and companies as well as financial institutions are using SDGs almost by default as the ultimate proof of the profound contribution they make, through their businesses and actions, to save this wretched world of ours. Contribution. This is how “we do it”. Contribute. It is a noble enterprise. A Lord of Rings-like plot with the complexity of Brando’s role in Apocalypse Now. Overwhelming, dark, profoundly violent, hopeful, cerebral, divine.
At the same time there’s this itching sound they make. These SDGs. Let me put it this way. The world’s Sustainable Development Goals aren’t sustainable.
How the SDGs got hijacked
I was thinking about taking a long break now, maybe going out for a walk or just shifting from my desk towards a big soft pillow to scream into it. But I simply had to go on and explore the hijacking of a concept that intentionally had great purpose.
In 2015, the world’s governments signed on to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a commitment to bring the global economy back into balance with the living world.
Now, seven years later, as the U.N. General Assembly convenes online to discuss the global ecological crisis, everyone wants to know how countries are performing. To answer this question, delegates and policymakers have referred to a metric called the SDG Index, which was developed by Jeffrey Sachs “to assess where each country stands with regard to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”
The metric tells a very clear story. Sweden, Denmark, Finland, France, and Germany – along with most other rich Western nations – rise to the top of the rankings, giving casual observers the impression that these countries are real leaders in achieving sustainable development. There’s only one problem. Despite its name, the SDG Index has very little to do with sustainable development. In fact, oddly enough, the countries with the highest scores on this index are some of the most environmentally unsustainable countries in the world.
The problem with Sweden (and other SDG heroes)
Take Sweden, for example. Sweden scores an impressive 84.7 on the index, topping the pack. But ecologists have long pointed out that Sweden’s “material footprint” – the quantity of natural resources that the country consumes each year – is one of the biggest in the world, right up there with the United States, at 32 metric tons per person. To put this in perspective, the global average is about 12 tons per person, and the sustainable level is about 7 tons per person. In other words, Sweden is consuming nearly five times over the boundary.
There is nothing sustainable about this kind of consumption. If everyone on the planet were to consume as Sweden does, global resource use would exceed 230 billion tons of stuff per year.
To get a sense for what this would look like, consider all the resources that we presently extract, produce, transport, and consume around the world each year – and all of the ecological damage that this causes – and triple it.
But it’s not just Sweden. In fact, data published by scientists at the University of Leeds shows that all of the top-ranked countries in the SDG Index have significantly overshot their fair share of planetary boundaries, in consumption-based terms – not only when it comes to resource use and emissions but also in terms of land use and chemical flows like nitrogen and phosphorous.
It is physically impossible for all nations to consume and pollute at the level of the SDG top performers without destroying our planet’s biosphere. In other words, the SDG Index is, from the perspective of ecology, incoherent. It creates the illusion that rich countries have high levels of sustainability when in fact they do not.
Experts: It’s time to dispose the SDGs
Now. The next time you read about how companies contribute to the SDGs, how their investments, actions, emission reductions are doing the outmost for SDG 11, 13 or 15, then be aware that it is simply not true – for the following reason.
Companies and financial institutions do not disclose an SDG baseline for their efforts. A baseline that would include the positive as well as negative contribution on selected SDGs. We need that baseline in order to truly evaluate how they are performing. This is called the net-contribution. But companies claim they only contribute to the baseline in a positive way, so we have no way to know what the real contribution is.
In other words, companies need to disclose their net SDG baselines before they can claim any contributions. What we are dealing with is deception, and we are not seeing any tangible improvement for the billions of people around the world that truly depend on SDGs being achieved.
The scientific community has also questioned the very purpose of the SDGs. A letter signed by 100 scientists, teachers and experts from 37 countries argues that it is time for the UN to dispose of the sustainable development concept and in particular of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) “due to 30 years of proven failure from its allegiance to global capitalism”. They argue that the SDGs are a failure because they are based on central tenet of capitalism: That economic growth is needed to fight hunger and lift everyone out of poverty.
And in this paper it is confirmed that, for most companies, information regarding SDG reporting is still more symbolic than substantive, supporting the little impact SDG reporting has on firm performance and suggesting that firms usually engage in sustainability reporting as a symbolic strategy to address legitimacy issues and to respond to stakeholder pressure.
H&M is an SDG leach (and there are many others)
Let me provide an example. H&M is a family-owned Swedish multinational fast fashion company. It operates a resource-intense value chain that comes with challenges like access to land, water use and energy use. But then, take a look at how H&M is explaining how they contribute to the SDGs in this document.
If you find an SDG baseline for H&M in relation to land use, water and energy uses, then I promise I will eat two of my hats, and I will film it too. And if you find a net-SDG disclosure from H&M, I will throw in a pair of shoes too (and the filming will be excellent).
This is the thing: As long as you don’t see a net-SDG baseline disclosed by the company then you shouldn’t even bother to read the rest. Without a net-SDG baseline it will be misleading and false since it does not disclose the true and complete picture (or net-reality) SDG footprint of the company.
The truth is that H&M is a net-negative SDG contributor. An SDG leach. There are many others.
How about we face the truth?
That H&M is an SDG culprit is not the point. The point is that we need to start looking at the things as they are, without pretending to be something we are not, noble believers in human morality. We are not and we never were. It is a compromise, this journey of ours through the time and the centuries. A compromise with our own fears and hopes, our own petty selves and better others. It is what it is. It would be easier to just face it and take it from there. In that case we would at least start working with the reality as it is.
We aren’t here to make the world “better”. We are here to make the world liveable place for all. Maybe we, the privileged ones, should shift focus from economic growth to focus on well-being. The world doesn’t need indefinite growth, it needs to understand ecological limits and what balance looks like. Maybe we should never settle for making the “means” the destination of who we are.
Someone once said that love is to serve. To put someone else’s joy before your own. Love is never a mediocre middle ground. It requires a full and unconditional surrender.
Over half the global population can't afford a healthy diet
Speaking of love. Almost 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020, up 112 million from 2019. This reflects the effects of inflation in consumer food prices stemming from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures put in place to contain it.
An estimated 45 million children under the age of five were suffering from wasting, the deadliest form of malnutrition, which increases children’s risk of death by up to 12 times.
As many as 828 million people go to bed hungry every night. In 2030, 670 million people – 8% of the world population – will still be facing hunger.
Have a great net-SDG contribution week!