What are the Sustainable Development Goals? (SDGs)

Written by Lori Campbell on 24th Jan 2024

If you want your investments to contribute to solving global challenges, while also aiming for a profit, a good place to start is by mapping them against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Many sustainable investment providers now relate their funds to specific goals, making it easier to see what positive impact your money is making.

In 2015, all United Nations Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, making assurances that social and political progress would centre on three key areas: environment, society and economy.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) attempt to tackle injustice, inequality, and environmental degradation, and aspire to increase global prosperity and ultimately achieve peace and justice in all UN member states by 2030.

These goals are all connected, and progress in one field naturally leads to success in another; all the while ensuring the inclusion and welfare of all citizens, regardless of gender, age, race, economic background or ability.


SDG 1: No poverty

‘End poverty in all its forms, everywhere’

UN SDG 1 NO POVERTYGlobal poverty is one of the most urgent issues facing our world, with 9.2 per cent of the population living on less than $2.15 (£1.69) per day.

Regardless of race, gender and age, people must have equal rights to all economic resources, basic services, land ownership and finances. Building the resilience of the poor and reducing exposure of vulnerable groups to risk must be a global priority.

The UN aspires to eradicate extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90/£1.49 per day), and halve the number of people living in any form of poverty by 2030.

However, while some parts of the world have made progress in reducing poverty levels, the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing conflict, and natural disasters have slowed progress. If current trends continue, 575 million people will still be living in extreme poverty by 2030.

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SDG 2 : Zero hunger

‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’

There is more than enough food produced in the world to feed everyone. And yet, currently one in 10 people (783 million) worldwide go to bed hungry every day. There are 14 million children in the world suffering from acute malnutrition – a staggering 45 per cent of childhood deaths worldwide are due to hunger and related causes.

All people must have access to sufficient, sustainable and safe food supplies by 2030, securing an end to all forms of malnutrition. Agricultural production should be doubled, food production must become more sustainable and investment in agricultural productivity and diversity should be prioritised.

Shockingly, the world is back at hunger levels not seen since 2005, and food prices remain higher in more countries than in the period 2015–2019. Along with conflict, climate shocks, and rising cost-of-living, civil insecurity and declining food production have all contributed to food scarcity and high food prices.


SDG 3: Good health and well-being

‘Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages’

A healthy population is an essential aspect of sustainability. But, despite recent progress, each year more than five million children still die before their fifth birthday – with almost half dying the first month. Also a woman dies every two minutes from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

Fatal disease such as HIV/Aids and Malaria has also seen falling rates in recent decades, due to increased access to care and education, but must still be seen as a key area of concern.

Targets include eliminating preventable deaths of infants and children under five, and reducing maternal deaths to below 70 in every 100,000 births. There should be increased access to healthcare and education, and issues of drug and alcohol abuse need global attention. Wealth should be diverted to research into vaccinations and medicines, and financing the health industry.

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SDG 4: Quality education

‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’

Ensuring that all members of society have access to a good education is a cornerstone of social progress and a huge factor in securing a sustainable future. Globally, 244 million children are not in school: 23 per cent are primary school age. But going to school doesn’t necessarily mean adequate education: 617 million schoolchildren still haven’t learned basic reading and maths skills.

Tackling this means ensuring that, by 2030, all children have access to free, equitable primary and secondary education of a high standard, and all people can access further education. Part of every person’s education should focus on sustainable development and all it encompasses.

The coronavirus pandemic was a huge set back for childrens’ education and mental health, causing learning losses in 80 per cent of countries.

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SDG 5: Gender equality

SDG global goal 5 gender equality

‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’

The SDGs recognise that there is still progress to be made in the fight for gender equality. Girls are married as children (one in five are married before their 18th birthday), subjected to female genital mutilation and are at a high risk of violence, but in 49 countries there are no laws in-place to protect them.

Women are still economically disadvantaged too: globally they earn 24 per cent less than men and at the current rate of progress, it will take 170 years to close the gap. There are currently 700 million fewer women than men are in paid work.

Gender discrimination must be eradicated by 2030. That includes violence; domestic, sexual, economic and otherwise.


SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation 

‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’

Clean, safe drinking water and access to hygienic sanitation is one of the most critical aspects of safe living. But on a daily basis, nearly 1,000 children die from entirely preventable diseases caused by unclean water. Currently 3.6 billion people, nearly half the world’s population, do not have access to safely managed sanitation in their home.

By 2030, access to clean, safe water and hygienic sanitation should be universal. Countries should focus on the reduction of pollution and minimising irresponsible disposal of waste, effective resource management, and local initiatives.


SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy

‘Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’

Globally, 675 million people still live in the dark – four in five of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.

SDG 7 is to make affordable energy accessible to all by 2030, and a substantial share of it must be sourced from renewables. This is key to the sustainable development of agriculture, business, communications, education, healthcare and transportation.


SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth

‘Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’

Although global employment rates are on the up following the pandemic, this is not the case in low-income countries.

There are also still large pay disparities and many jobs fall into the ‘informal employment’ category, leading to insecure jobs and increased poverty. A sustainable economy must allow people to be engaged in stable employment that benefits the economy without harming the environment.

Wealth obtained from economic growth should be redistributed effectively and invested sustainably to ensure all of society benefits.


SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure

‘Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation’

Social infrastructure, such as efficient transport, energy, communication and irrigation, is crucial to empowering communities and ensuring sustainable development.

Increasing access to, and nurturing the development of, sustainable and resilient infrastructure to support economic growth and human well-being globally plays a crucial role in the success of all other SDGs.


SDG 10: Reduced inequalities

Reduce inequality within and among countries

Economic growth is not a sufficient solution to poverty if it is not inclusive, and disparities in access to health, education and work persist. There’s a direct link between social disadvantage, risk of poverty and reduced life expectancy.

In a society that works towards empowering disadvantaged people and ensuring equal opportunities for all, the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental) can be met. This includes safe and responsible migration, gender parity and the empowerment of all races, sexes, ages, backgrounds, and abilities.


SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities

Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

SDG 11 sustainable cities and communitiesBy 2030, the number of people living in cities is expected to rise to five billion, so proper planning and management must be implemented to ensure responsible urbanization.

Rapid expansion of the urban landscape puts a huge strain on resources, the environment, and the health and wellbeing of city residents – many cities nurture a slum culture and catastrophic air pollution levels due to improper infrastructure.

Currently there are 1.1 billion urban residents living in slums – and two billion more are expected in the next 30 years.

In line with the SDGs, housing and cities must be deemed safe and inhabitable and urbanisation must be stabilised, protecting the natural environment and ensuring safety of city inhabitants.


SDG 12: Responsible production and consumption

Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

At our present rate of consumption and population growth, by 2050 we will need the equivalent of three planets to sustain our current lifestyles. In order for a sustainable future to be possible there needs to be an overhaul of the entire supply chain; from producer to consumer.

The environmental footprint of high income countries is currently 10 times that of low income countries.

Despite calls for a global phase-out of fossil fuels, global crises meant that subsidies nearly doubled in the year to 2021.

As a global society we must reduce our consumption, particularly our irresponsible wastage of food, energy and water. We must also remodel our lifestyles to incorporate a culture of and reusing and recycling resources, which rests on proper education about the implications of and alternatives to wasteful consumerism.


SDG 13: Climate action

Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

This is a huge one. The UN says we are “standing on the brink of climate calamity.” At the current rate, the world will reach 1.5C warming above pre-industrial levels by 2035.

The effects of climate change are disrupting economies, taking lives and destroying natural habitats around the globe; no country or community is immune. As global citizens we must take responsibility, utilise cleaner and more resilient economies and prioritise climate action in both individual choices, and national and international policies and legislation.

This is addressed more directly by the Paris Climate Agreement, which has been ratified by 175 UN Member States.

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SDG 14: Life below water 

UN SDG 14 Life below water

‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’

Our oceans cover 75 per cent of the earth’s surface and make the earth habitable for humankind. Responsible, sustainable development means regulating pollution, tackling overfishing, preventing chemical imbalances due to waste disposal, and temperature change due to climate change.

By ensuring that research and education in the marine sphere continues we can conserve this vital resource and habitat to sustain and conserve life below water.


SDG 15: Life on land

‘Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss’

Forests are a major food resource, provider of shelter and versatile materials, and the number-one defence against climate change. They support the livelihood of 1.6 billion people and sustain the life of 80 percent of all life on land. But they’re disappearing into the system of corporate greed, and without them the loss of species, biodiversity, and eventually human survival is inevitable.

Conserving forests and other natural ecosystems, combating desertification and preventing environmental degradation is a crucial to a sustainable future. Sustainable management and the prevention of poaching and uncontrolled deforestation by engaging indigenous communities creates jobs, and preserves the lungs of the earth.


SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions

‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’

Peaceful, inclusive society is essential for the success of sustainable development. This cannot be achieved without the eradication of trafficking, sexual violence, international homicide and violence against children.

Deaths from conflict have surged by 50 per cent due to the war in Ukraine, and 2021 saw the highest number of murders in 20 years.

Institutions must be built or remodelled to be a trustworthy defence against injustices and a protective barrier against corruption. The world should be a safe place for all people, and protecting our most vulnerable is the core of any progress. For that to happen, the corrupt and unjust must be held to account.


SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals

The SDGs are dependent on each other for success. The reduction of inequality allows progress in gender equality, and leads to an increase in global peace and justice. The development of clean, renewable energy is a huge step in the fight against climate change, which in turn benefits life on land, life below water and more.

In this way, UN Member States should work together to ensure that the completion of the goals is universal, offering help and support where possible and receiving it when necessary, recognising the greater need of developing member states. Partnership can be financial, resource based, technology based, aid based, or involve shared expertise.

The key to sustainable development is cooperation and collaboration.


The UN sustainable development goals logo

For your FREE guide on how to invest to help the world to achieve the UN SDG’s – while securing your own financial future from as little as £5 – see the Good Guide to Impact Investing.

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