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What are the UN's Sustainable Development Goals? A quick guide

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. The UN describes them as a “call for action” to “promote prosperity while protecting the planet”.

Read on for what the 17 goals are and what Schroders’ Global Head of Sustainable Investment has to say about them.

Where did the SDGs come from and what are they for?

They were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to address global challenges. They were developed from the Millennium Development Goals.

Andrew Howard explains: “It is important to recognise that the global challenges described by the SDGs have been building up over several decades. The SDGs are a framework to guide ideas and innovation towards tackling those challenges.”

What are they?

  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

What are the targets and indicators?

Each of the SDGs has around 8-12 targets so there are more than 150 in total. They range from “enhancing the use of enabling technology... to promote the empowerment of all women and girls” to increasing “substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix”.

These targets have specific indicators to measure progress, of which there are more than 200. For example, to measure progress against the target to reduce global maternal mortality, the global maternal mortality ratio is an indicator. 

Are we on track to meet the goals by 2030?

The UN’s own progress report for 2020 has warned: “The 17 SDGs demand nothing short of a transformation of the financial, economic and political systems that govern our societies today”. It described this as a “critical period”.

The pandemic led to a 7% increase in extreme poverty, with an additional 37 million people living on under $1.90 per day, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bill Gates’ fourth Goalkeepers report, launched ahead of the UN General Assembly, called for global collaboration to end the pandemic and get the SDGS on track.

Gates said: “The importance of the goals, if anything, is reinforced by the pandemic. After all, the pandemic has in almost every dimension made inequity worse.”

How are the UN SDGs relevant to investment?

It is often said that investors big and small have a part to play in meeting these global goals.

Andrew Howard, Schroders’ Global Head of Sustainable Investment, explains: “While originally intended for governments and policymakers, the SDGs have evolved into a universally recognised framework, being used by both the public and private sectors. Both play a key role in developing solutions.

“As investors, the SDGs help us understand where to deploy capital and how to ensure the capital we deploy is aligned.”

How else have investment firms developed their use of the UN SDGs?

Andrew Howard says: “The SDGs can also offer a way of understanding how investments align to an investor’s personal values. A wide array of solutions appeared over the last five years in the form of SDG-focused funds and measurement and reporting tools.

"However, it can be difficult to pick out which solutions offer new ways of thinking with meaningful outcomes versus products and tools that have simply been rebranded without much fundamental change.”

He adds: In the face of this challenge, we are developing a proprietary framework that aims to fill this gap. It will sit alongside our suite of investment tools including SustainEx, our proprietary tool to measure impact." 

So, in summary, investors can help progress the SDGs by investing in companies that are positively contributing to them?

Not only that. As owners of companies, investors have a voice - a unique opportunity to hold them to account and encourage them towards more sustainable business practices. 

Andrew Howard explains: “It we are to drive positive change, investment alone is not enough. Engagement is a critical component of an investor’s success in achieving positive, meaningful outcomes for society.”