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The development of the UN SDGs

Geoff Carter outlines the relationship between the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the EFQM Model.
An infographic of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals
© United Nations

When talking about the UN SDGs, and in particular their history, where best to start the conversation?

In the eyes of many, a good place to start is with an organisation called The Club of Rome and its publication, in 1972, of a report titled The Limits to Growth.

The Club of Rome, established in 1968, is a well respected, international think-tank created to address the many crises facing humanity and the planet. Over the 50+ years of its existence, it has counted amongst its membership notable scientists, economists, business leaders and former politicians.

The Club of Rome invited a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to undertake an investigation into the following:

  • The limits of our world system and the constraints it puts on human numbers and activity.
  • To identify and study the dominant elements, and their interactions, that influence the long-term behaviour of world systems.

The goal was to provide warnings of potential world crises if current trends are allowed to continue. Such warnings would offer an opportunity to make changes in our political, economic, and social systems to ensure that these crises do not take place. In the eyes of many, The Limits to Growth was THE publication that ignited the debate about the future of the human race. It has become one of the cornerstones of Sustainable Development thinking.

Also in 1972, the United Nations started to engage in the Sustainable Development movement by hosting the first Earth Summit in Stockholm. Since then, the UN has assumed an ever increasing leadership role in the sustainable development agenda.

In 1987 the UN published a report called Our Common Future. It was produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development. The report is also known as the Brundtland Report after Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister, who was the Chair of this Commission. It was this report that produced a definition of sustainable development that has been widely adopted:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future: The Brundtland Report (1987)

In 2015, two significant events took place:

  • At the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York, the United Nations presented 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. These goals represented a call to action to promote social equity, sound governance and prosperity while protecting the planet. They were adopted by all countries who were represented at the summit.
  • On 12 December 2015, a legally binding international treaty on climate change was signed by 196 parties at the Conference of the Parties (COP 21).

Although EFQM has not existed for as long as the United Nations (1945) or the Club of Rome (1968), the essence of the Sustainable Development agenda has always been included in every version of the EFQM Model. It has challenged organisations, not merely to improve their performance, but to do this with a focus on improving society as a whole.

The latest version of the EFQM Model continues with that ethos. EFQM recognises that organisations, as well as countries, have a role to play in supporting the UN SDGs. Within the EFQM Model there is an expectation that an organisation will respect, and act upon, the intentions of the 17 UN SDGs, regardless of whether it is legally obliged to do so or not.

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