• Everyone can make changes that will help the world achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Everything from recycling to writing shopping lists and air-drying clothes can help.
  • Technology is doing its bit, too, from online banking to apps that show the most sustainable produce.

“End extreme poverty. Fight inequality and injustice. Fix climate change. Whoa.”

So begins the United Nations’ Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World. “It seems impossible that the average person can make an impact. Should you just give up?” The answer, of course, is no.

Created five years ago, the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were intended to be a “shared vision of humanity and a social contract between the world's leaders and the people”. Focusing on the gaps in development, and giving a helping hand to those left behind, they were designed not just to motivate policy-makers but citizens too.

But the social and economic shocks of COVID-19 have threatened that progress at all levels, and we need some fresh thinking. That’s why the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit is this year being held under the theme of “Realizing a 'Great Reset' for Sustainable Development”. Sweeping changes are needed across businesses and societies to put us on a more sustainable path and meet the goals.

But many of us can also play a role, no matter how small. And it can start small...

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals environment inequality gender
In 2016, the UN set out 17 goals to help fight inequality and climate change by 2030.
Image: United Nations

1. It begins at home

The UN suggests a range of things many people can do easily from home, especially when it comes to tackling Goal 13: Climate Action.

Some of the changes it recommends are simple, such as plugging the many appliances around the home into a power strip, so you can turn them all off at once and reduce standby power consumption. Air-drying hair and clothes and making sure you put a full load in the washing machine can also help – as well as saving you money.

Technology can help us save the environment in other ways too. For example, do you really need those paper bills and bank statements? Going paperless could help you contribute to the Paris Agreement on curbing climate change.

And next time you’re on social media, look out for interesting posts about topics like Gender Equality (Goal 5). We can all help raise awareness about current issues, such as how the pandemic has put hard-fought gains for women’s rights under threat, by sharing this kind of content with our networks.

Last but not least: reuse and recycle. It really does work – for every tonne of glass recycled, for example, an estimated 315 kilogrammes of CO2 is saved.

The UN says saving the world doesn’t have to be hard.
The UN says saving the world doesn’t have to be hard.
Image: United Nations

2. Stepping outside

When you head to the shops or a restaurant, think sustainability.

Actions such as asking for sustainable seafood can have a big impact, and there are many apps that can help you make your choices. Making different choices can help too, such as buying “ugly” fruit and vegetables, which might otherwise go to waste, and using shopping lists to make sure you’re only buying what you really need.

And could you do your shopping closer to home? According to Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, our rapidly expanding urban areas may contribute about 60% of global GDP, but they also account for around 70% of CO2 emissions and consume a sixth of all resources. Shopping locally - if you are able to in your area - could help ease your contribution to this footprint, as well as help keep people employed.

Simple actions in your community and society can also have real impacts. These could include things such as donating clothes, books and furniture you don’t use, and making sure you and your family are vaccinated to protect against disease – which also aids public health.

And take advantage of your right to vote for the people you want to see running your country and local community, too, the UN says.

3. Making a difference at work

If you’re a home-worker, you may have already cut your carbon emissions significantly before you finish reading this sentence. But then again, maybe not.

“Energy management in buildings is generally more sophisticated than at individual homes” points out David Symons from engineering consultant WSP UK. The company’s research shows that in the UK commuters may have cut their emissions by 5% this summer, but could produce 80% more carbon this winter – if they turn the heating on. An analysis of 39 studies from around the world into the link between teleworking and emissions shows a similar pattern.

Where you work aside, you can help advance the SDGs as an employee by speaking up and getting informed. Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities highlights the multiple challenges that exist for vulnerable groups following COVID-19. One of the ways to help is by raising awareness.

Reduce inequalities within and among countries.
COVID-19 has had a dramatic effect on the progress of most of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Image: United Nations

“Raise your voice against any type of discrimination in your office. Everyone is equal regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation, social background and physical abilities,” advises the UN. “Voice your support for equal pay.”

The physical separation of remote working has made many sustainable at-work initiatives, such as organizing a ‘No Impact Week’, much harder. But social media and communications technology can help with activities like mentoring, which can spread opportunity.

“Encourage your company to work with civil society and find ways to help local communities achieve the goals,” says the UN. Will employers be receptive to this message as they respond to multiple crises? Businesses like Deloitte are encouraging leaders to think ambitiously, using COVID-19 as an opportunity to “rethink” and “reboot” work.

If priorities are being reset, now might be a good moment to seize the initiative.