SDG8: Getting to work on a brighter future for people and planet

clock • 19 min read

From office diversity to low-carbon skills, SDG8 suggests a change is coming to the way the world works

A decent job is one of the main aspirations for people around the world, bringing with it the promise of economic security, a sense of pride and community, and a route to a better life for oneself and one's family. But in the age of a 'climate emergency', the sense of what constitutes a decent job is changing fast. Traditional jobs from the industries that have fuelled the interlocking climate and biodiversity crises suddenly face the prospect of transforming beyond all recognition or disappearing altogether, while the surge of new green jobs that should replace them is characterised by the instability that inevitably defines any industrial revolution.

At the same time, the world of work is being transformed by a digital revolution that is changing the nature of the jobs that are available and the skills that are needed to do them, triggering massive new risks and opportunities. "Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics will lead to job losses, as skills become obsolete," warns the International Labour Organisation (ILO). "However, these same technological advances, along with the greening of economies will also create millions of jobs - if new opportunities are seized."

It is an exciting time, shaped by entire new industries, such as the renewables and electric vehicle markets, that have moved from a small niche to massive employers in the space of a few years. But the sheer scale of change underway in the employment market presents some daunting challenges.

As the ILO points out in a recent report, Work for a brighter future, those who lose their jobs in this green, sustainable, and digital revolution may be the least equipped to seize the new opportunities on offer. "Today's skills will not match the jobs of tomorrow and newly acquired skills may quickly become obsolete," it warns. "The greening of our economies will create millions of jobs as we adopt sustainable practices and clean technologies but other jobs will disappear as countries scale back their carbon- and resource-intensive industries."

The SDGs are a fantastic opportunity for business to change the conversation - Jakob Trollbäck, The New Division

Demographic changes are also going to further complicate the picture, according to the ILO's Global Commission on the Future of Work. "Expanding youth populations in some parts of the world and ageing populations in others may place pressure on labour markets and social security systems," it warns.

These are the complex challenges facing those working towards SDG8, the goal to provide "decent work and economic growth" for all by 2030, while still delivering on all the wider Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The targets contained in SDG8 are a tough ask, but the goal is seen as being "at the heart of the whole 2030 agenda", according to Damien Grimshaw, director of research at the ILO, as "it touches on virtually all of the other goals."

"The original plan was to have two separate goals - one for decent work issues and the other related to sustainable growth," he explains. "It was a very smart thing to bring the two together. Anyone choosing growth and productivity has to consider issues of decent work and inclusive growth."

While a number of other SDGs are very detailed in their targets for issues such as access to water, ending poverty, and rolling out electricity networks, SDG 8 is more wide-reaching, notes Jakob Trollbäck, founder of The New Division, a sustainability strategy agency that was involved in the design of the Global Goals. "It's about a change of mindset on what a company can and should be doing," he explains.

Unsurprisingly then, it is also one of the most popular goals among the business community. "For many years, business - especially the big companies - has been seen as the villains and there have been a lot of predatory practices in the commercial world," says Tröllback. "The SDGs are a fantastic opportunity for business to change the conversation and be seen as a force for good in the world."

Growth is a crucial mechanism for lifting people out of poverty

SDG8 - What's in it?

SDG8 aims to "promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all".

It contains a number of sub-targets indicating the type and scale of economic growth desired, including ensuring economic growth is faster (at least seven per cent per year) in the least developed countries, and requiring that growth is aligned with development-oriented policies such as supporting start-ups and SMEs, the eradication of modern slavery, and the prioritisation of high quality jobs.

Crucially though, SDG8 is clear economic growth must be decoupled from environmental degradation. It stops short of fully wading into the long-running and controversial debate about whether sustainable economic growth is possible on a finite planet, but it unequivocally calls for "producers and consumers [to] use global resources more efficiently and try to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, with developed countries taking the lead".

It is an aspiration that virtually every modern business and government can support, and yet since 2015 progress has fallen short against a number of SDG8's key indicators.

The SDG Knowledge Platform reports that in recent years, labour productivity has risen and unemployment has fallen around the world. But it also counsels that "more progress is needed to increase employment opportunities, especially for young people, reduce informal employment and labour market inequality (particularly in terms of the gender pay gap), promote safe and secure working environments, and improve access to financial services to ensure sustained and inclusive economic growth".

In a survey by Globescan, just 11 per cent of experts questioned said that progress to date on achieving SDG8 was "good", while 47 per cent said progress was "poor". What's more, the organisations judged to be the worst performers in terms of contributing to the SDGs were national governments, investors, and the private sector - all the groups that are most important to SDG8's success.

"Taken literally, SDG8 is a radical and transformative agenda that the global community has signed up to, to move away from the idea of conventional economic growth as it is understood around the world," says Grimshaw. But, as is the case with so many of the SDGs, many governments and companies appear happier endorsing economic radicalism in principle, rather than in practice. 

Edging forward

That said, in many respects hugely positive strides are being made. Over the past 25 years the number of workers living in extreme poverty has declined dramatically, according to the United Nations Development Programme. "In developing countries, the middle class now makes up more than 34 per cent of total employment - a number that has almost tripled between 1991 and 2015," it says.

But there are widespread fears that the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis has badly undermined progress over the past decade. Indeed, there are warning signs the future will not see a repeat of the radical shifts in poverty levels experienced since the 1990s. "As the global economy continues to recover, we are seeing slower growth, widening inequalities, and not enough jobs to keep up with a growing labour force," the UN warns. Throw the projected impacts from climate change into the mix, which the UN has repeatedly warned is already impacting food security and undermining developing economies, and delivering decent work for all becomes even more of an uphill struggle.

An estimated 172 million people worldwide were without work in 2018 - an unemployment rate of five per cent. But while the unemployment rate has trended downwards in recent years, youth unemployment is a problem around the world, with the global rate of youth joblessness reaching 13 per cent in 2017. To meet the SDG8's aim of full and productive employment for all by 2030, some 470 million new jobs need to be created, points out Marga Hoek, author of The Trillion Dollar Shift, Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Even if you do have a job, that is no guarantee of prosperity - some 700 million workers lived in extreme or moderate poverty in 2018, surviving on less than US$3.20 per day.

There is also still a massive gender imbalance in the workplace, with 48 per cent of women counted as part of the labour force in 2018, compared with 75 per cent of men. Some 85 million women are described as "underutilised" in the labour market, compared to 55 million men. In addition, women who do work are paid, on average, less than men, with a median pay gap of 12.5 per cent.

Meanwhile, around two billion workers, or 61 per cent of the global workforce, were in informal employment in 2016, exposing them to dangerous workplaces, an increased risk of workplace accidents, and limited worker rights.

Exacerbating all these issues is a lack of access to finance - while virtually every adult in high-income countries has a bank account, just over a third of adults in low-income countries enjoy access to even basic financial services, with women even less likely to have an account.

The Royal Tropical Institute of the Netherlands (KIT), sums up the problems: "More progress is needed to increase employment opportunities, especially for young people, reduce informal employment and labour market inequality (particularly in terms of the gender pay gap), promote safe and secure working environments, and improve access to financial services to ensure sustained and inclusive economic growth," it notes.

What counts as 'decent work'?

The concept of 'decent work' lies at the heart of SDG8. As PwC points out: "jobs are the cornerstone of economic and social development. Jobs give people better standards of living and increased spending power, driving demand for products and services".

According to Hoek, there are some key pre-requisites for 'decent work':

  • Acceptable payment
  • A formal job with rights
  • Safe working conditions
  • Fair work with normal working conditions
  • A job that pays a living wage, not just a minimum wage
  • Equality for men and women

One of the keys to enabling decent work is to increase access to financial services, Hoek says. "Most people in developing countries still have no access to finance," she points out. But while just 35 per cent of people in low-income countries have access to finance, the solution is not to create more financial institutions, she adds. "The most important thing is Wi-Fi," she argues. "Developing countries will leapfrog the industrialised world. They won't use old-fashioned financial institutions. They will use digital solutions, not just to access financial services but also to become more resilient."

Safaricom's M-Pesa mobile banking system, which runs on mobile phones, has swept across Africa, for example, empowering millions of people who previously lacked traditional bank accounts. Similarly, "smallholders in South America are using weather forecast apps that give them enough warning to act to protect their harvests against bad weather," Hoek adds.

But the delivery of SDG8 extends far beyond welcome digital innovations. The targets relating to decent work and economic growth are sufficiently broad that global brands have embraced the goal in completely different ways. Unilever, for example, says it "drives fairness in the workplace, by implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, by advancing opportunity for women, and developing inclusive business and increasing the participation of young entrepreneurs in their value chain", while sports giant Nike plans to "unleash human potential" by having all its contracting factories demonstrate how they invest in people by 2020.

If you want to create great jobs, SMEs are the place to go - Marga Hoek

Siemens, meanwhile, plans to work on improving energy efficiency as a way to cut CO2 emissions while improving productivity and creating jobs. And Intel is planning to send researchers and anthropologists to observe students using technology in school in order to develop more culturally adaptive products and programs.

Others focus on empowering people to kickstart their earning potential. Carpet tile maker Interface, a pioneer in sustainability and circular economy initiatives, has created another revenue stream for fishermen by buying their used nets, a move that both gives it a raw material to use in its products and helps to reduce the amount of ocean plastic. Ethiopian coffee grower Moyee Coffee is creating decent work by "educating and empowering Ethiopians to roast their own beans and setting the stage for ethical industrialization".

It is simultaneously one of the strengths and one of the weaknesses of SDG8 that almost any credible corporate sustainability strategy or green business model can be tweaked or framed in such a way as to highlight its contribution to SDG8.

Small is beautiful

But while big international brands have been among the most enthusiastic embracers of SDG8, it is SMEs that will ultimately be crucial to its success, Hoek says. "It's not about the multinationals, it's about SMEs," she argues. "They are the biggest job creators everywhere around the world. In developing countries, two thirds of all formal jobs are in SMEs, and in low-income countries, that figure is 80 per cent, while in most OECD countries, about 95 per cent of all enterprises are SMEs, providing 70 per cent of the jobs."

In short, SDG8 is unachievable without rapid reform of how SMEs operate in many countries around the world. "If you want to create great jobs, SMEs are the place to go," Hoek continues. "Helping that sector in developing countries is the best way to tackle this."

SMEs can also be an important source of new ideas, innovation and support for larger organisations, while supporting minority or women-owned SMEs in the supply chain can be an important way to tackle economic inequality and build goodwill.

Ensuring jobs are formal is another crucial requirement for decent work. In low-income countries, 60-95 per cent of workers are in informal employment, according to the ILO. "They have no worker protections, no worker rights. They are in a precarious and vulnerable state," Grimshaw says.

What's in it for business?

Creating decent jobs is one of the fundamental ways in which businesses support economic growth and sustainable development, but it is also how companies support drive their own future development. As is the case with many of the other SDGs, "companies are open to the idea that this is good for business," says Grimshaw.

However, there is a divide between companies that are relatively reactive and those that are embracing the goals as a driver of future prosperity, says Rob van Tulder, professor of International Business and Society Management at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, and author of Business & The Sustainable Development Goals: A Framework for Effective Corporate Involvement.

"About half of businesses are focused simply on avoiding harm, so they are looking at things like eradicating modern slavery and child labour… but the other half are focused on inclusive growth," he says. Unilever embody one of the best examples of the latter approach, he adds, with projects such as its initiative to create decent work in the Sri Lankan tea sector.

Delivering on SDG8 will inevitably require more companies to take a proactive approach to embedding a more inclusive and sustainable growth model. But sometimes even reactive actions can spark seismic change. Take the 2013 fire at a textile factory in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh, which claimed the lives of more than 1,100 factory workers. Such human tragedies have an enormous impact on the reputation of the companies involved and even their ability to do business, PwC notes.

"A company's licence to operate or ability to win large public sector contracts in developed and developing countries alike, is increasingly influenced by its ability to demonstrate the economic value it generates for the local and/or national economy to governments," it says. Effective and credible supply chain and risk management has become an important component of any SDG strategy.

Shared value

One for way corporates to think about how best to approach SDG8 is through the lens of creating 'Shared Value', a concept developed by Harvard Professor Michael Porter to help firms address social impact challenges. "The [approach] means thinking about how the company can create value for all the critical stakeholders in their value chain, not exclusively shareholders," explains James Wallis, director of strategy at consultancy Anthesis.

Shared Value is based on the idea that the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are closely intertwined, especially for consumer goods companies which rely on a consistent, quality supply of raw materials for their products. Consequently, myriad corporate sustainability initiatives are now characterised by a pursuit of Shared Value, whether companies are aware of the concept or not.

Training opportunities will be vital for preparing employees for the future of work in a low-carbon world | Credit: US AID

It is an approach that is particularly prevalent in companies that are working to respond to the environmental threats exacerbated by the climate crisis, such as higher sea levels, increasing temperatures, drought, and more violent storms, as well as social issues, such as discrimination or the impact of ageing populations in sectors ranging from oil and gas to farming.

For example, the FAO states that 70 per cent of the world's food is produced by smallholders, but many of them live in working poverty, Wallis points out. "When you understand that the world needs to feed 10bn people by 2050, then you begin to realise that there is a clear business case for supporting the farmers we rely on, which is very well aligned with SDG8."

Under the Shared Value concept, addressing the challenge of feeding the world can go hand in hand with improving the lot of shareholder farmers. "For example, providing the upfront investment for better farming or milling equipment, something that farmers, especially in the developing world can rarely afford, can make a significant difference," says Wallis.

Nespresso is just one of the corporate giants to embrace this concept, citing the example of a community mill in a coffee farming community in Colombia, where farmers can pay a small amount to process their crops, dramatically improving their yields compared to milling their beans manually.

A just transition

The question of how to ensure decent work for climate impacted smallholders is just one small part of a wider debate on how to shift entire industries onto a sustainable footing without leaving certin communities isolated and impoverished. One of the most important challenges, Erasmus University's van Tulder says, is to link SDG8 to the green agenda. Rather than creating decent work and inclusive growth in environmentally damaging industries, the focus must be on "inclusive, green growth where companies can reap the potential of innovation and new clean industries while moving out of old, dirty ways of doing business," van Tulder says.

A holistic approach to the SDGs can help corporates drive this shift, for example by linking SDG8 with SDG12 on Responsible Consumption and Production, SDG13 on Climate Action, SDG14 on Life Below Water, and SDG15 on Life on Land. There are also obvious crossovers with SDG11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities, SDG9 on Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, and SDG7 on Affordable and Clean Energy as well. The key for companies, van Tulder says, is to create a clear link between their business model and the natural environment.

Addressing this side of the debate means not only growing new green industries as sources of economic growth, from clean energy to the circular economy, but helping those workers employed in polluting sectors to transition to greener employment.

Inclusive, green growth will be the driver of the world economy in years to come - Rob van Tulder, Erasmus University

For every step the global economy makes towards lower emissions and a safer future, workers in high carbon industries become more at risk of underemployment and redundancy. Ensuring that worker training moves in lockstep with the economy's low-carbon transition is therefore essential, not only for the livelihoods of those workers, but for keeping the social fabric of nations intact and ensuring political support for rapid decarbonisation is maintained.

The need for a so-called 'just transition' to maintain social equity during a low-carbon transition was a hot topic at last year's UN COP24 climate summit in Poland. On the opening day of the event the Polish presidency steered through the launch of the Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration, securing signatures from over 50 countries and parties to the climate convention. It calls for support for workers in rapidly changing industries, such as by providing re-training opportunities and targeted government support to help those in need.  

The issue does not just effect energy firms concerned about the fate of their fossil fuel workforce. From auto workers used to assembling petrol or diesel vehicles to builders unfamiliar with zero carbon building techniques and farmers battling with new sustainable technologies and environmental demands, firms should expect to provide extensive support and retraining to prepare employees for work in a low-carbon world.

Work for a better world

When it comes to SDG8, it is one of the rare goals where companies can pick their ambition level. Firms paying only lip service to the SDGs can claim to be working towards SDG8 merely by dint of providing employees with a formal contract and their legal rights. But of course, ambitious companies can and should go much further. From encouraging diversity and tackling youth unemployment to preparing their workforce for the impacts of climate change and the shift to a low-carbon economy, companies have the opportunity to establish a planet-friendly pathway to global growth, even if those well-trodden debates about the long term viability of 'green growth' on a finite planet inevitably rumble on.

For all firms, the pursuit of sustainable growth models could be the defining issue of our age, van Tudler suggests. "Inclusive, green growth will be the driver of the world economy in years to come," he says. "Companies are starting to change their view of what they are for."

But to achieve progress, businesses and policy makers need to reframe their mindset. According to the ILO's Grimshaw, SGD8 is "asking us to think not just about what's good for the economy, but what's good for the planet and for people. It ties the concept of decent, productive work to this alternative model of economic growth. It is a wonderful challenge to try and make that work."

On the face of it, SDG8 might look like the goal the best supports the status quo of the global economy. In reality, it is one of the most radical targets and wide-ranging targets to ever be embraced by political and business leaders the world over.

More on Work

Survey: Green skills gap threatens UK's sustainability goals

Survey: Green skills gap threatens UK's sustainability goals

New research warns green workforce is struggling to keep pace with increased demand, prompting fresh calls for more collaboration between business, educational institutions, and government to tackle worsening skills gap

clock 27 June 2024 • 3 min read
LinkedIn: Young people struggling to break into green industries

LinkedIn: Young people struggling to break into green industries

Data from the social media platform suggests 18-24 year olds are struggling to develop the skills and experience needed to pursue their dream green careers

Michael Holder
clock 17 June 2024 • 4 min read
Losing altitude: Study reveals business flights down nearly four million on pre-pandemic levels

Losing altitude: Study reveals business flights down nearly four million on pre-pandemic levels

Number of flights taken for business purposes in 2023 was 29 per cent lower than 2019 levels, New Economics Foundation analysis finds

Stuart Stone
clock 20 May 2024 • 4 min read