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SDG washing: what it is & how to avoid It

Learn about SDG washing and distinguishing between genuine sustainability efforts and false claims. Get tips on how to be a responsible cons
Written by
Alan Pierce
Published on
February 10, 2020

SDG washing is falsely portraying activities or products as supporting the UN's Sustainable Development Goals for marketing gain.

Introduction to SDG Washing

Sustainability is a hot topic, with consumers increasingly seeking environmentally friendly products and companies committed to positively impacting the world. As a result, more and more companies are making claims about their contributions to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, not all of these claims are genuine, and a new phenomenon known as "SDG washing" has emerged.

SDG washing refers to when companies make vague or false claims about their contributions to the SDGs for marketing and image improvement without actually taking meaningful actions to support the goals. This practice can mislead consumers, who may believe they are making a positive impact through their purchasing decisions when they are not.

Understanding the Need for SDG Washing

The need for SDG washing arises due to several factors. Firstly, consumer awareness and demand for sustainability are increasing as people become more aware of their purchases' environmental and social impact. Secondly, competition among companies is also increasing, with companies looking to position themselves as leaders in sustainability to appeal to consumers.


As per  WBCSD Reporting Matters, 2017,  45% of member companies align their sustainability strategy with goal-level criteria in the context of their business strategy. The report is potentially good news, but there are significant gaps between  SDG reporting and  action ! In 2020, we were hopeful that this gap would shrink. Why? “Because Sustainability risks are, at the end of the day, business risks.” as per Robert B. Hirth, Sr. MD at Protiviti, Chairman Emeritus COSO, and Co-Vice Chair of the SASB Standards Board.

How to Avoid SDG Washing

As a consumer, it's important to distinguish between genuine sustainability efforts and false claims. Here are four steps you can follow to avoid being misled by SDG washing:

  • Research the Company and its Claims: Before making a purchase, take some time to research the company and its sustainability claims. Look for information on their website and in the media.
  • Check for Verifiable Evidence: Companies committed to sustainability should have evidence to support their claims. Look for reports, audits, and other documentation demonstrating their efforts to support the SDGs.
  • Look for Independent Certifications: Several independent organizations certify companies for their sustainability efforts. These certifications, such as LEED or Fair Trade, assure that the company is committed to sustainability.
  • Evaluate the Company's Overall Approach to Sustainability: A company's sustainability efforts should not be limited to its marketing claims. Look for information about their overall approach to sustainability, such as their supply chain management, waste reduction efforts, and community involvement.

Align to SDG targets, not just SDG Goals. 

The key to preventing SDG-washing is in the targets. Two hundred thirty-two measurable indicators support the 169 targets of 17 Global Goals. These targets indicate where the real change happens, and the SDG indicators are the best way to track, measure, and monitor progress.

Let us start understanding the difference between impact indicators and outcome metrics (targets). For example, I am a business-educating students from an underserved community. I intend to report alignment with Sustainable Development Goal 1, Poverty reduction, and  SDG 4, Quality Education . Poverty has many dimensions, and one of the dimensions includes meager income or unemployment. Along with making a profit, I intend to reduce poverty by educating students through job-related skills.

I measure how many students I am serving year after year. I am showing my impact as an increased number of students I serve. Is that true? What am I doing wrong? I am sure you will agree that the increased number of students is not an Outcome metric. I need to know how many students found a valuable career post-graduation. My mission is not served if they are not finding well-paying, fair, and dignified employment. We all know that having a job does not guarantee an income increase or decent living. So, my Outcome should be mapped to Target 1.2: reducing the proportion of people living in poverty according to national definitions. I have to dig deeper to get that information. A well-thought-out survey to learn about income increase is a start.

Measure Outcome, not just activities.

Large companies often have their Corporate Sustainable Responsibility efforts reports aligned to SDG but fail to show real-world impact. See the article,  “Think you know sustainability? Think again.”  Corporate social responsibility (CSR) traditionally involves a company’s foundation, charitable work, employee volunteerism, and recycling efforts. At the same time, Sustainable Development Goals narrow the focus on business-critical sustainability issues. 

It is much easier to talk about money spent or how many people have been 'touched by a particular initiative. However, outcome-led measurement needs to establish a benchmark before a program begins and measure the lasting impact. 

Often many companies look at the 169 targets from 17 Sustainable Goals and then do an inventory of their current activities, match them to some of those targets, and then produce an SDG report on contributions. It's not about CSR or charitable projects; we need to leverage our business to create sustainable growth. It is easy to draw some links between the activities you have already doing highlighted by the SDGs. Especially with areas such as Gender Equality or Decent Work and Economic Growth are the areas of corporate governance. We need companies to drive change in social, economic, and environmental impact and not just focus on a false mapping exercise.

Many businesses and social purpose organizations have to look hard to change their internal business practices and implement extensive business process changes to make a more profound change that aligns with sustainable development goals. SDG is a bottom-up movement, where businesses need to work on the SDG of need in that region instead of choosing them according to their interests. Large businesses are asked to stop “cherry-picking SDG” as per  UN Global Compact. 

Collaborate in multi-stakeholder partnerships!

Your SDG efforts will be effective, credible, and impactful if you partner with experts to deliver change programs. Collaborate with UN-based subgroups, NGOs, cause-related organizations, and think tanks. 

Impact Measurement and Management are a must.

There is growing acknowledgment amongst leaders in the sustainability business sector that they have to make a real impact. And for the actual impact, businesses must align their business strategy with the Global Goals and map and track their metrics to the specific SDG targets. Having transparent performance data is often the best solution for cleaning up SDG-washing. If a company's branding department adopts the SDGs, we should have mechanisms to hold them accountable – with data on hand. 


In conclusion, it's important for consumers to be aware of SDG washing and to take steps to ensure they are making informed and responsible purchasing decisions. By researching, looking for verifiable evidence, checking for independent certifications, and evaluating a company's overall approach to sustainability, consumers can make a positive impact through their purchasing decisions and support a more sustainable future. The responsibility also lies with companies to act ethically and transparently in their marketing and sustainability efforts. 

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