Consideration of culture is vital if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

Xinzhu Zheng, Ranran Wang, Arjen Y. Hoekstra, Maarten S. Krol, Yaxin Zhang, Kaidi Guo, Mukul Sanwal, Zhen Sun, Junming Zhu, Junjie Zhang, Amanda Lounsbury, Xunzhang Pan, Dabo Guan, Edgar G. Hertwich, Can Wang*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

58 Citations (Scopus)
59 Downloads (Pure)


Integrating the social and natural sciences to effectively tackle the intertwined challenges represented by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been advocated for years. However, the practice is challenging, especially with respect to the beliefs, morals, and practices of individuals and groups or, more succinctly put, culture, which, despite attracting growing awareness, remains understated in sustainability. Here, we examine how and to what extent cultural values are linked to the achievement of the SDGs. Synthesizing knowledge from more than 300 publications, we show that cultural traits are linked to the achievement of all 17 SDGs and 79% of SDG targets. Further, empirical understanding obtained from a panel data analysis highlights that cultural values explain as much as 26% of the variations in the SDG achievements, yet the links are strikingly divergent across cultural traits and indicators. Our findings imply the need to consider more cultural contexts and nuances in sustainability science communications and policy design and to develop new cross-disciplinary solutions to sustainability challenges. For a long time, sustainability science and policy design have been rooted in environmental and economic perspectives, leaving the role of culture undervalued. Although a growing number of scholars and organizations, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), have realized the importance of culture in sustainable development and made substantial effort to integrate them, the debates against conventional sustainability discourses remain challenging. Our analysis contributes to the debate by providing both a conceptual framework and empirical evidence on the relations between cultural values and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our findings imply the necessity to consider more cultural context and nuances in sustainability science communication and policy design. In particular, sustainable development is suggested to be tailored to, but not be captive of, cultural context. The role of culture in sustainable development has received increasing attention but remains undervalued. We bridge culture and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in both qualitative and quantitative manners and convert the vague understanding of culture-SDG links to concrete evidence. We show that culture is linked to the attainment of all 17 SDGs, represented by 79% of the SDG targets. Culture additionally explains as much as 26% of the variations in the achievement of SDGs.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)307-319
Number of pages13
JournalOne earth
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 19 Feb 2021


  • 2030 Agenda
  • Connection
  • Cross-disciplinary research
  • Culture
  • Individualism
  • SDGs
  • Sustainable development
  • Synergies
  • Trade-offs
  • Values


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