David Griggs and colleagues argue convincingly that sustainable development goals (SDGs) should enhance the role of natural capital and ecosystem services within a framework of economic development and poverty reduction (Nature 495, 305–307; 2013). We believe that it is also crucial to factor social change into the SDG process.

It will be essential to motivate, guide and support social change towards sustainable practices at all scales of governance — globally, nationally and individually. Simply setting ambitious goals will not generate these changes: their formulation must include details of the processes needed to achieve them. For example, SDG targets should take into account ideologies, religious beliefs and institutions, including formal and informal rules and customs.

Setting targets in terms of specific and simple changes would help to overcome institutional inertia, induce desirable shifts in governance and lead to changes in people's behaviour. One such example might be to build formal accounting of carbon dioxide emissions and reporting practices into global trade and retail chains as part of international climate agreements.

Another suggestion would be to use the SDGs to create global networks for problem-solving, or social-innovation 'labs', which could catalyse new sets of rules, ways of thinking and processes for action and decision-making.