In 2015, the United Nations codified 17 pressing global challenges into the Sustainability Development Goals. The purpose of the goals is to address massive ecological and social challenges with concrete and measurable targets. Unfortunately, in many cases the Sustainability Development Goals, or SDGs, have become simply a colorful group of boxes businesses can employ to make claims about the sustainability of their operations.
In reality, if a business wants to leverage the SDGs, they need to direct their operations towards advancing specifically the SDG targets, which express in concrete terms what it means if a given goal is reached. There are altogether 169 targets attached to the SDGs, with 231 indicators used to measure their progress. For existing businesses redirecting their operations to support the targets is difficult. For new companies, however, they present the opportunity to build new kinds of businesses, where the revenues ensue from directly addressing problems related to SDG targets.
Startups are a very promising type of new company in the context of SDGs.
Startups are a very promising type of new company in the context of SDGs, first of all due to their capability for radical innovation and secondly due to their inherent aim to exponential growth and scalability. While an SME business may be able to address a sustainability issue for a small group of people, startups have the potential to grow from zero to billion dollars in a handful of years. If the startup were to generate revenue through solving a problem related to an SDG target, explosive growth in revenue would mean explosive growth also in social or ecological impact.
One of the most pressing of the goals is SDG10: “Reduce inequality within and among countries.” The aim of the goal is to create a more level playing field for everyone, regardless of income level, gender, age, ethnic background, disabilities or other status. While this goal requires a great deal of effort from policymakers, some of its targets can also be treated as a business opportunity.
SDG10 consists of 10 targets. Some of them, such as 10.4 and 10.5, which concern policies and regulation need governmental work and lobbying from global influencers. Others, however, such as 10.2 or 10.6 contain also potential for business opportunities.
SDG10 target 10.2 concerns ensuring the “social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status”. The indicator attached to the target concerns people living below 50% of median income by age, sex and persons with disabilities. A startup could address the target by creating solutions directed specifically at underrepresented groups. For example, microtasking, microfinance, or social marketplace services directed at such groups could create sustainable business opportunities. Whenever a microtasker or online marketer would be able to earn a wage above the median income, the startup’s business would move the needle on the indicator attached to 10.2 and therefore bringing SDG10 closer to completion.
SDG target 10.6 concerns ensuring “enhanced representation and voice for developing countries in decision-making in global international economic and financial institutions.” The indicator of this target is the proportion “of members and voting rights of developing countries in international organizations”. A startup could create, for example, a recruiting or headhunting business finding the best potential candidates for such organizations that are tracked in the indicator. Increasing the number of representatives from developing countries in international institutions could create opportunities for membership and voting rights of the countries of origin in the institutions. With each placement, the startup would create circumstances to further advance the indicator to reach SDG10.6.
It is an ongoing process to analyze the SDG targets and to indicate the opportunities that businesses, and more specifically startups, can leverage.
These are just a few examples of how a startup could aspire to create scalable business to measurably reach toward an SDG10 target through progress in the attached indicator. According to the UN’s analyses, the SDGs present business opportunities worth 12 trillion dollars in total. It is an ongoing process to analyze the SDG targets and to indicate the opportunities that businesses, and more specifically startups, can leverage.
Ensuring equal opportunity to everyone is one of the most critical of the sustainability challenges, as it feeds to most, if not all of the others, ranging from education to health, or being able to face ecological and societal challenges. While reaching SDG10 targets will require ongoing and active input from governments, NGOs and existing businesses, building new, scalable business to deal with various aspects of the targets can result in new, surprising and explosively scalable ways to reach a more equitable, inclusive world.
Co-Director & Professor of Practice at Aalto Ventures Program
Citations from sdgs.un.org/goals/goal10
Read more about SDG’s here: sdgs.un.org/goals