Corporate involvement in Sustainable Development Goals: Exploring the territory

Johannes van der Waal*, Thomas Thijssens

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

64 Citations (Web of Science)


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) stress the necessity of private businesses’ active participation, appealing for their creativity and innovation to create value for the common good, such as reducing poverty, eradicating hunger, and protecting biodiversity. While currently some, especially recently formed private businesses may consider the common good as their main business goal, most existing stock-listed businesses clearly do not. The question that arises is why private stock-listed businesses should voluntarily engage with such common good objectives while being principally shareholder value oriented.
This study aims to map the undiscovered terrain of corporate SDG involvement as emanating from the sustainability reports of the 2000 largest stock listed businesses worldwide.
The methodology is based on an exploratory two-step approach. First, using logistic and quantile regressions, potential associations between reported SDG involvement and corporation attributes are investigated quantitatively for a sample of the 2000 largest stock listed corporations worldwide. Secondly, the most extensive SDG reporters are analyzed qualitatively in order to explore what is actually disclosed.
The quantitative results show that corporate involvement in the SDGs is overall still limited, and mainly associated with commitment to other sustainability-related themes and East Asian country settings, as well as company size, and corporate sustainability level. Such implies that SDG involvement is inspired by a mixture of legitimacy and institutional motives. However, when the level of involvement is analyzed, a much more scattered picture occurs. Global Compact membership is the only factor that is consistently highly significant. More importantly, qualitative scrutiny of the individual reports reveals that company involvement is largely symbolic and intentional, rather than substantive. This suggests that companies treat the SDGs, similarly to the Global Compact, as a scheme with non-committal implications, facilitating impression management and learning.
This study provides an initial understanding of current corporate practice, as well as clues for theorizing this largely unexplored research field. Practically, the overall lack of meaningful SDG disclosures implies that stakeholders with an SDG interest cannot rely on sustainability reports for their decisions.
Original languageEnglish
Article number119625
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Cleaner Production
Publication statusPublished - 10 Apr 2020


  • Global Compact
  • Sustainable Development Goals
  • corporate sustainability
  • shared value
  • sustainability reporting


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