Sustainable Development Goals Provide a Framework: Here’s How You Can Use Them

Many impact entrepreneurs feel overwhelmed when it comes to communicating the positive impact they’re making.

Either they’re unsure exactly what metrics they should be recording, or they don’t feel confident that they’re delivering enough value to avoid accusations of greenwashing.

Without a standard framework for impact measurement, it’s difficult to know what to include and how to share the difference you’re making with your customers, stakeholders, investors and other agencies that may be interested.

That’s why having an impact story can be a powerful tool. You can pull together a compelling picture of why your business exists, what difference you’re making, and what you plan to do going forward to build a business that matters even more.

Thankfully, the UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework to make preparing and communicating that story even easier.

Communicating your impact is an essential part of your marketing strategy.

Inc. reports on an international 2017 survey in which more than one in five consumers said they’d “actively choose brands if they made their sustainability credentials clearer on their packaging and in their marketing.”

And according to Trendwatching, “it’s now simply assumed your organization is working to reduce its impact. For example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced in October 2018 that over 250 organizations, including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever and H&M, had signed its pledge to eliminate single-use non-recycled plastics by 2025.”

So with consumers actively seeking out evidence of your impact, and 93% of the world’s largest 250 companies now publishing annual CSR reports, there’s never been a more important time to tell your impact story.

Your impact story brings your vision to life.

As a changemaker, you started your business to have a positive impact in the world. To change a social or environmental issue you feel strongly about. 

You’ve got a big vision, and your impact story is a chance to share it.

When it comes to measuring your impact, your vision is your guiding star. You’re not going to create that change overnight, so how will you know if you’re making progress? 

What indicators can you look for, and measure, to be confident that you’re creating a better world?

For example, if your big vision is to create a world where women have equal opportunities to men (in line with achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender Equality), you might be bringing that to life by providing training to the women in your supply chain.

You can measure the impact of this by capturing data about how many women you’ve trained, how many jobs you’ve created, how much more money they can earn as a result of being trained – and collect personal stories from the women themselves about how the training has helped them.

As part of your impact story or annual report, you should include targets for how many women you will train next year, and what impact that will have for them, their families and their communities.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a roadmap for change.

Unless you’re part of a wider movement like Fairtrade or Bcorp, there’s no industry standard or set framework for recording, measuring and communicating your impact. 

There are probably a wide range of credentials you could include – for example, if your products are vegan, your suppliers are paid a living wage, or your supply chain is plastic-free, but it’s essential that you provide evidence to support any claims. Vagueness is one of the warning signs of greenwashing, so the more specific you can be about your impact, the better.

You should also aim to balance out your facts and figures with testimonials, case studies and stories about beneficiaries you’ve helped. This will make your impact feel more real and will help build an emotional connection with customers and stakeholders.

This is where many impact entrepreneurs get overwhelmed – without a guiding template or the budget to hire an impact measurement expert, many struggle to fully convey the power of their impact story.

Thankfully, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are here to help.

In 2015, a global agenda was developed to create a better, more sustainable future for us all, where major global challenges (like inequality, lack of education and climate change) can become a thing of the past. 

The UN Sustainable Development Goals that were agreed cover 17 areas, with 169 targets to be achieved by 2030 – providing an actionable plan for business, governments, communities and even individuals to play a part in creating a better world.

The Global Goals showcase your positive impact on a larger scale.

These goals give us a common language to communicate how we’re going to tackle global problems. The targets set out in this agenda provide a practical roadmap for exactly how the goals will be achieved, and by aligning your impact to the relevant Sustainable Development Goal(s), you can explain the difference you’re making in a global context, in ways that everyone will understand.

When you communicate your impact through the lens of the SDGs, you can show the wider impact you have on a range of different issues.

All the goals are connected, and progress towards one area also helps others too. For example, if we achieve Goal 4: Quality Education, it will help to achieve Goal 1: Zero Poverty, Goal 5: Gender Equality, Goal 8 : Decent Work & Economic Growth and Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities too.

Often impact entrepreneurs who have embedded ethics and sustainability throughout their supply chain and business practices find it difficult to communicate their impact without overwhelming their customers. You have to choose which bits of your story to tell carefully, and plan when to tell these within your customer journey.

By picking one or two SDGs as your core focus, you can showcase the impact you’re having and demonstrate how it’s helping to achieve the other goals too – which gives your impact story more depth without making it too complex.

Impact reporting doesn’t have to be an annual exercise.

Larger corporations often produce an annual CSR report, but as a smaller ethical and sustainable business, you’re in the fortunate position that positive impact is embedded in your DNA. It guides every decision you make, and it’s constantly evolving.

You can use this to your advantage by making your impact story a living, breathing part of your marketing strategy.

There are many different ways you might choose to make an impact, and these will influence how you communicate your impact story. For example, if you operate a ‘buy one give one’ model – made famous by TOMS Shoes – you may wish to update customers after their purchase about who received the item you gave on their behalf and how it helped.

If you make a monthly donation to charity, you might choose to share monthly updates about how much you’ve given so far, how much you’re aiming to give by the end of the year and how the money is being used.

You could include your impact on your website, in your regular newsletter, on your social media, and in your customer service processes. Don’t forget to thank customers for the part they’ve played in helping bring your impact to life!

Customers impressed by your impact will sell your story for you.

Humans love to share stories. Telling your impact story to existing customers will show them you appreciate their support, and will encourage them to spread the word about your business too.

Measuring and communicating your impact isn’t always about data and reports – sometimes it’s simply telling a story in a social media post, or emailing your customers to let them know how they’ve helped you make a difference.

You might feel like you’re not doing “enough” or you’re too small to create the global change needed, but by connecting your impact to the Sustainable Development agenda, you can show the world why your business matters and what you’re doing to “be the change you wish to see”.

Here are some more resources to amplify your impact marketing:

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Sian Conway is the UK's Green & Eco Influencer of the Year 2018 and Founder of#EthicalHour, the world's first and largest online support network for people who want to live and work more ethically. Sian has worked all around the world on social impact projects and now provides marketing and business growth support and mentoring to ethically-focused businesses and purpose-driven entrepreneurs.

She brings together thousands of ethical business owners, consumers and bloggers to support each other and grow the ethical economy. As a marketing strategist and business mentor, she provides ethical marketing strategies for impact brands that want to scale. Sian passionately believes that conscious consumerism has the power to change to the world.
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