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11 Sep 2017

Conniel Malek, Director, True Costs Initiative

SDGs – The New FitBit®?

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A couple months ago, in response to my constant complaints about never having enough, time, energy or motivation to go to the gym, my husband suggested that I get a FitBit®.  You know, the life-changing wrist technology that has been part of the fitness tracking phenomenon.  “It will change your habits and get you to exercise more”, he said.  I pondered it for a full minute, as I walked to the fridge for yet another snack, but promptly decided against it (the FitBit®, not the snack).  I grudgingly admitted to myself what I already knew deep down. While a FitBit® might be a useful tool, it could not by itself spur me to the real actions I needed to take – snack less, sleep more and most importantly - get outside and sweat.

The application of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with its vital goals of climate action, reducing inequality, eliminating poverty among many other others and the approach corporations will undoubtedly take to achieving these goals is not dissimilar from the way people approach and use FitBits® and other fitness trackers.  There is a focus on data gathering, a lack of true self- reflection and the ease of conflating motivation to change real change in behavior.  Unfortunately, SDGs are the new FitBit®.  For the SDG’s to be worth their salt, they need to be more than a soft tool which motivates corporations to gather data in order to meet aspirational goals.  They need to spur corporations to activate for real environmental and human rights protection throughout the entirety of their business operations in.  In the same way a FitBit® can’t make you fit unless you get up off your couch and exercise, SDGs can’t eliminate poverty or inequality without corporations taking real action– they are effective when they make corporations sweat.

Even though research suggests that they provide accurate data in certain measures and can inspire people to exercise more through daily goals and reinforcement techniques like receiving virtual rewards, the Fitbit® is the subject of much criticism. First, for the FitBit® to be useful you have to proactively do something with the data. Too often, users eagerly consume the data but fail to implement changes in their activity level and lifestyle based on this information. One study determined that success was dependent on the level of self-monitoring and engagement.  Not surprisingly, corporations are taking the SDGs as an opportunity to do something they love to do - gather data.  They are busily gathering information about their supply chains compliance (or lack of) compliance with SDGs and identifying environmental and human rights vulnerabilities in business operations.  Meanwhile, grassroots activists and affected local communities are not reporting any marked change in the corporate activities which extract natural resources, use human capital and affect the environment but are not climate neutral, sustainable or grounded in inclusive development.


"Corporations are trying to audit and compliance their way to SDG alignment…. In the same way a FitBit can’t make you fit unless you get up off your couch and exercise, SDGs can’t eliminate poverty or inequality without corporations taking real action – they are effective when they make corporations sweat."


A second criticism of the fitness trackers is that they distract us from what really needs to happen: an honest conversation with ourselves about the status of our health and the personal choices that breed our sedentary lifestyles.  Instead the focus has become the easy social media praise people get from posting recently achieved goals or the trove of data about their sleep patterns. It is often not complemented by an understanding of how essential exercise is and the challenging work it will take to change our comfortable but harmful habits.  Similarly, corporations’ assiduous mining of data has become an end in itself, not rooted in business understanding of the main place of human rights in the economic ecosystem.  Corporations are trying to audit and compliance their way to SDG alignment by focusing on data instead of activating for real change.  Accomplishing the SDGs will require a tremendous level of focus and coordination between corporations, governments and other actors in society that we have yet to see.  As has been pointed out by those who intently study the application of the SDGs and other UN initiatives, many corporations are simply repackaging existing compliance programs in the wrapping paper of SDGs without implementing meaningful change in their value chains that will combat climate change, provide for decent work and protect human rights. Their data gathering is motivated by SDG compliance publicity and the production of glossy annual reports that put nervous shareholders at ease.

A third criticism of fitness trackers is that the data they mine and produce does not lead the self-reflection necessary for a lifestyle change. The data is only useful to the extent it is complemented by introspection and self-evaluation.  You don’t need a FitBit® to tell you to get more sleep, your puffy eyes can tell you that. SDGs are a useful but blunt tool.  They can help jolt the corporations and governments into acknowledgement that inequality, climate degradation and social injustice that enables corporate profit today is untenable and unsustainable.  But that acknowledgment will only create positive change in the business and human rights landscape if there is honest introspection and truly critical evaluation of harmful corporate activities, followed changes which are surgical in their application.

Corporations are best able to do that kind of introspection, when there is a combination of internal and external pressure to institute real change. However, it is the strong external pressure - from grassroots and human rights groups who insist that corporations stop talking to please shareholders and start doing to protect people and their environment, and from the advocacy of a multitude of accountability organizations including International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) who consistently assert that the SDGs must be grounded in international human rights law and effective remedy mechanisms for harmed communities - that will ultimately apply the uncomfortable pressure on corporations who purport to adhere to the SDGs.  That external pressure is essential to corporate accountability for the SDGs.  After all, that external pressure is what causes them to sweat.

About the Author - Conniel Malek Esq. practiced as a corporate attorney and is now the Director of True Costs Initiative (Linkedin), a Boston based organization committed to advancing corporate accountability and strengthening legal systems in the Global South.