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Creating genuine change through SDG implementation

19 August 2021 at 7:45 am
Virginia Munro
Australia may have ranked last for sustainability, but it’s time for us to realise the SDGs hold the key to a sustainable future after COVID, writes Dr Virginia Munro, who argues we need to work toward genuine commitment and greater SDG accountability. 

Virginia Munro | 19 August 2021 at 7:45 am


Creating genuine change through SDG implementation
19 August 2021 at 7:45 am

Australia may have ranked last for sustainability, but it’s time for us to realise the SDGs hold the key to a sustainable future after COVID, writes Dr Virginia Munro, who argues we need to work toward genuine commitment and greater SDG accountability. 

Instead of waiting for COVID-19 to disappear, we’ve reached the realisation that it’s here to stay, and we need to adapt to co-exist with it. In its wake, we’ve experienced disruption to our daily lives, the way we work, and how we think and make decisions. At a business level, it has forced change in the way organisations “action” their social, and environmental initiatives, and has thrown a beam of light on the need for policy change. 

In this context, COVID-19 has been a major distraction for the government’s agenda toward a more sustainable Australia. However, even before the first cases of COVID-19 reached Australian shores, there was a lack of urgency for change in sustainable outcomes by government (and particular sectors of the business community). 

With continued COVID lockdowns in Australia and a campaign of mixed messages, many businesses are focused on just staying afloat. Understandably, sustainability through the implementation of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), may not currently be a top priority. At the same time, there is an insurmountable and growing fear in society, for both climate change and social action, and a realisation that the SDGs (also known as the Global Goals) provide a vehicle to action this change. In addition, the current literature suggests we must continue to work toward SDG implementation at whatever scale is possible, and independent researchers acknowledge the SDGs provide a realistic approach to navigate societies through and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the interim, finding a solution to COVID-19 remains a global priority, and we now rely on a world-wide roll-out of vaccines alongside the notion of working together toward this new normalcy. In a past blog, I mentioned that if we can come together to “turn the tide on this pandemic, surely we also have what it takes to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.  

But where does Australia fit into this? In an interview with Pro Bono News in April this year, I was asked where Australia was on the SDG journey. My reply was that, compared with other developing countries, Australia is falling behind. I also referred to a “cognitive mind shift” required by the Australian government to deliver on migrant human rights, the gap in Indigenous and non-Indigenous equality, the slowness to discontinue fossil fuel production and the inability to commit fully to carbon zero by 2050. I stated this cognitive mind shift was required at the highest levels of the Australian government, as this type of attitude then spills over to all areas of sustainability – including uptake of the SDGs. 

This has now been confirmed with the June release of the Sustainable Development Report 2021. This research confirms that Australia is ranked last (across 193 UN member countries) for action taken to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, and is therefore last for SDG 13: “taking action to combat climate change”. The current study also ranks Australia 35th in its progress to meet all SDGs. As Australia is the world’s 13th largest economy by GDP, this is way below expectation for a developed country. 

With many country and state borders now closed, localising the SDGs within a country, state or region brings a new opportunity to the context of “acting local”. Australia’s success in this varies and depends on which of the 17 SDGs is focused on by each state, industry sector or independent business. 

With the UN launch of the SDGs in 2015, Australia committed to the SDGs by 2030, however by 2018 research was already reporting that “if Australia continues business-as-usual, we are off-track to achieving the SDGs in 2030 and would achieve about 40 per cent progress on all SDG targets”. By 2020, the same study evaluating Australia’s progress across 86 SDG targets, found Australia had “mixed performance” with strong progress in “goals relating to health and education, undermined by poor progress in goals relating to climate action and reducing inequalities.” 

An interesting finding of this study is the rapid and “growing interest in the SDGs from business and civil society”, suggesting that strong interest from the private sector could have a greater impact on government going forward. 

Chapter three of my book covers the SDGs in depth from the private sector perspective. My research also found that targets for the SDGs were falling behind levels expected for 2030, and not just in Australia. I noted that “SDG washing” was increasingly reported in the academic literature without being defined. I developed a definition to assist this research:

“SDG washing is embracing the SDGs by listing social and environmental initiatives (SIs) under SDG categories without actively implementing them with purpose and intention, and therefore at the heart of the business model.”

The concern that the SDGs may be used as PR or marketing vehicles, leads to the possibility that they may just become a set of norms, as they are not legalised or compulsory. For this reason, encouraging genuine commitment and efficient and fair enforcement of the SDGs, alongside measurement mechanisms that are easily accessible and standardised across nations and countries is necessary. It is therefore vitally important to measure the impact of initiatives introduced to fit each SDG category and SDG label and that this will also ultimately assist with funding SDG implementation at a much faster rate. 

To deliver on sustainability in Australia, we therefore not only need a “cognitive mind shift” in government, we also need to work toward a genuine commitment and greater SDG accountability and therefore impact measurement. This in turn will stimulate SDG impact funding to provide ongoing support. We need to acknowledge this urgency and recognise the need for engagement and deep transformation through SDG implementation at the core of the business model. Businesses both small and large, corporates and NGOs, must lead the way in this implementation.

As more vaccinations are administered and take effect in Australia, we can start to focus again on our journey back toward purpose. If we can collaborate to combat a challenge such as COVID-19, then we should be able to do the same for all challenges that the SDGs work toward.

Globally, we are working toward a new reality for COVID-19. Let’s not make this a “missed opportunity” for a more sustainable Australia. The inconvenience of doing this now, far outweighs the future cost and danger to us all.


Details of Dr Virginia Munro’s latest book, CSR for Purpose, Shared Value and Deep Transformation: The New Responsibility, can be found here.

Virginia Munro  |  @ProBonoNews

Dr Virginia Munro is an academic, author and researcher for social impact, engagement (and identification), CSR, creating shared value (CSV) and sustainability. She is a course writer and presenter for several universities. Her studies in developing and developed countries have won research awards and scholarships, and her consulting and pro bono work in developing countries, continues to be her greatest passion.

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