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A Beginner’s Guide to The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

We all want to achieve a more sustainable future for all, but we don’t always have the tools to do it. That’s what sparked the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. At first glance, they can seem a little overwhelming – there’s 17 of them and they all refer to the biggest issues society is facing. Gulp.

What are the SDGs? The SDGs are a roadmap for the global community – including organizations, educators, governments, and individuals – to play a role in bettering the world, and the people on it. They were drawn out in 2015 when all of the members of the United Nations  met, and are intended to be “completed” by 2030. Each goal has a set of targets and indicators to break down what progress we’re making. And they are all interconnected.

Photo Courtesy un.org

I know – overwhelming right? But don’t worry. 

The mindset approach I like to take with the SDGs is:

1. The Goals Are for A Collective, Not One Entity: No one is expected to tackle every single goal single-handedly. While we all may care deeply about all the goals, it’s imperative that we work on the ones that we are able to contribute to the most effectively and immediately.

2. Progress Over Perfection: Embrace the chaos of it all and understand that doing our part for the world isn’t going to be easy. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to have to sacrifice one thing and exchange for another. The beauty of the goals allows us to actually measure and take action as a collective. 

Why Should You Care About SDGs?

I could rattle on about all the problems facing the world and why they’re important, but the truth is – you should care because your life and other people’s lives depend on it. And I’m not talking about your grandchildren, I’m talking about you and now. Every single one of these goals and the associated actions are to mitigate the harm that’s already been done, and prevent as much as possible for the future.

The good news is the SDGs have created something that’s never been done before, they’ve given us something to do about those depressing headlines other than just read them. 

A lot of progress has already been made and will be made! Samoa has elected more women to parliament than ever before. Estonia was the first EU country to meet its 2020 renewable energy targets and is already investing in more wind energy to exceed their targets. In rural Georgia, more people are earning sustainable incomes through improved agricultural training and access to local markets. And the businesses and organizations with the most power and influence are more pressured than ever to use their privileges for social and environmental good. 

And that’s just a SMALL snapshot. 

But we’re still far from finished, and every single individual is needed to make it happen. And in this guide, I’ll give you the key questions to get you started for yourself and for your work. 

For detailed descriptions, a full list of goals and associated actions, visit the UN Sustainable Development website.

Applying The SDGs To Yourself & Your Organization

Now that you’re more familiar with the goals, let me help you get started in working on them. And that first step is choosing which goals you’re most aligned with and have the skills/passion to work on immediately. If you’re literally JUST dipping your feet into social and environmental activism, then I highly recommend you choose just one goal at the end of this exercise. And don’t be ashamed AT ALL in that! One goal is already hefty and impactful enough. 

1. Pick 2-3 SDGs That Resonate With You Personally

Reflect on your values. What do you tend to do in your free time? What hardships have you faced in your life? Then choose 2-3 SDGs that resonate the most with you, on a personal level.

2. Pick 2-3 SDGs That Resonate With Your Work

Take a look at your work and what your organization/solo venture does. Who do you work with? What is the mission? Then choose 2-3 SDGs that you feel your work could most easily relate to.

3. Look At Your Personal And Work SDGs & Identify Which Ones Align.

Ideally, the SDG(s) you choose will align with both your personal and professional life. Why? Because it needs to be integrated into your life as a whole. It’s like when people start working out and say “It’s a lifestyle,” — that’s what we do with SDGs (but perhaps with a little more humility). 

4. Out Of Those SDGS That Align, Pick 1-2 Goals To You Feel Align With Your Life The Most.

Again, if you’re just starting out, I highly recommend you pick ONE goal to tackle that is the low-hanging fruit. By picking one, you’re not saying you don’t care about the other 16 SDGs, you’re just being smart and prioritizing the one that you’ll be able to make the most progress on. Not everyone’s solutions look the same. We all have different privileges, skill-sets, and resources, and we need to use them to our advantage. And remember – the goals are interconnected, so by working on one, you’re going to inherently make progress on others.

5. What Are 2-3 Things You Can Do More Within That Chosen SDG?

I highly recommend utilizing the UN resources to help you come up with 2-3 actionable steps. The thing to remember is it’s not just about donating money to these causes, it’s about actively integrating these changes into your life. For example, if you chose Climate Action, then don’t just donate money or products to environmental organizations. You can do everything from committing to taking shorter showers everyday to starting a mentorship program on climate activism for your team. For more ideas, check out the Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving The World.

It’s all about making SDGs work for you, not trying to make you work for them. Rachel Svetanoff, co-founder of The Global Futurist Initiative, embodies the right way to utilize the SDGs and illustrates how they are interconnected. She’s always had an interest in global health. She learned about this issue early on in her educational career and graduated right before the SDGs were adopted.

“It was only a matter of time before I gravitated towards the Goals because of their natural fit for the global health, social impact, and human rights fields that make up my career journey,” she said. “While I have a background in contributing to efforts that supported all the SDGs, the goals I am currently focused on for my organization InternetBar.Org Institute (IBO) are 1, 4, 16, and 17.”

She illustrates her commitment to these goals by doing things like partnering with the PeaceTones initiative, which enables musicians to develop and disseminate their art by bringing crucial legal, technology, and business skills to historically unheard musicians. Her work here not only contributes to SDG #1 – No Poverty, but also SDGl #4 Quality Education. And SDG #17, Partnerships for Goals, is integrated into the mission of her work.

“We leverage systems thinking community development by partnering with values-aligned organizations from all sectors to create transformational change for the communities we serve, the disenfranchised youth,”

You can read more about her journey in adopting the goals here. In-fact, her team has adopted a new SDG. Meet SDG #18, Youth Equity.

“Because of our strong belief in youth to lead, we want to make this position clear by promoting youth at its highest level by the inclusion and adoption of an SDG 18 called ‘Youth Equity,’ she said. “It is for everyone’s benefit to elevate the youth contribution and voice to such global agendas and mandates as the SDGs.”

Wow! Rachel has gone above and beyond in integrating the SDGs by even creating one of her own. After all, the SDG framework isn’t perfect.And neither are you – it’s important to remember that while Rachel’s someone we can all look up to, remember — even she didn’t start that way. We all have our own SDG journeys that we’re on. 

And it’s just as important to discuss what we’re doing as well as to be transparent about what we’re not doing. Be transparent with your audience, your colleagues, and your customers about what you’re working on. Because silence and inaction on these issues is no longer acceptable. 

Still Curious to learn more?

About the Author

Picture of Sarah Bloodworth

Sarah Bloodworth

Sarah Bloodworth is a writer and sustainability & culture specialist located in Austin, Texas. She studied Journalism and Environmental Science At The University of Texas at Austin and partly at the University of Sheffield in the UK. She worked as a freelance writer for several years, eventually founding my own LLC where she helped mission-driven organisations understand and connect with their audiences through clear, impactful communications. She now works at Flex International, a global manufacturing partner dedicated to creating products that improve people’s lives and make the world a better place. Her specialties include writing/editing, research, customer relations, community-building, and data. The views Sarah expresses are her’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Flex.

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