Top 5 Sustainability Trends for 2012

More than a coincidental number of people have asked me in the past couple of weeks as to what I am seeing as trends in the sustainability arena, a top 5 trends of 2012, so to speak.   So, here is what I’m seeing this year.

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1) Companies are overwhelmed.
2012 continues with a depressed economy with high unemployment, tight budgets, and a great deal of uncertainty.  The rules of business of business keep changing.  Then adding to this uncertainty and over whelm is a rise of new stakeholders who are on the move and actively seeking change.   James Epstein-Reeves in his recent blog post on the Pain of Sustainability speaks to this quite well.  Pressure is no longer coming from one or two directions; it is coming in from all directions and on business elements that have never been touched or effected before.  People are upset with the status quo and are voicing their opinion with the media, with their feet, and with their shareholder proposals.  See #2 and #3.

2) It is all about trust and rebuilding trust.
Trust is fragile and Edelman’s 2012 annual Trust Barometer should be a wake-up call to all business.  Trust in business and governments remains low and continues to drop. The Arab Spring last year, the growth of Occupy Wall Street, and the ever-presence of social media have created new paradigms in communication evoking change in systems, countries, companies, and brands.

Building trust or rebuilding it, as the case may be, needs to be more than merely what you can do, it needs to be about who you are while you are doing it as well as your consistency while doing it. Edelman, in their annual report from the field, talks about the path forward being more than just a business’ license to operate – it is about developing a license to lead.

3) Upstream supply chain responsibility: a flood of social & environmental responsibility issues are brewing.
The era of supplier anonymity and vague responsibility is over.  Whether it is conflict minerals, animal welfare, human rights, child labor, human trafficking, working conditions, unemployment, or political undesirability (Arab Spring and Occupy Movements) – people are watching, talking, no longer accepting business as usual, and taking action.

Look no further than everybody’s darling, Apple, and the recent in-depth news coverage by The New York Times and CBS Sunday Morning over their supply chain, specifically Foxconn. These investigations came even after and/or perhaps even because they recently complied with the new California Transparency in Supply Chain Act (effective January 1, 2012). Apple published in mid-January their list of suppliers along with a Supply Chain Responsibility report. This California law now makes reporting on supply chain responsibility mandatory and entry-level, and therefore no longer will be seen as a pro-active “responsible” action.

Having pro-active policies in place and being able to respond rather than react to these situations will dramatically change the risk and cost of them to a corporation. It is now becoming about smart business practice. Financial Times provides a case study Mattel’s dealing with and learning from their supply chain debacle of lead in their toys.

4) Be bold and be intentional not just aspirational
Bold, aspirational goals have recently been the status quo for corporations getting into sustainability (100 percent renewable energy; zero waste; 100 percent recycled content sourcing).  Many corporations are questioning whether a) they can actually meet these targets, and b) if they don’t, will they be attacked for not fulfilling them.  The word from sustainability experts and several NGO roundtables I’ve attended this past year is that an honest, intentional approach with ongoing communication is far more important than the actual goal itself.  However, if a company makes a bold aspirational goal and makes no substantial effort to move toward that goal and/or communicate those efforts, they will open themselves up for attack.

5) Have you met the new NGO? Same as the old one, but now they are on your side too.
It’s complicated out there (see #1-4).  What if you and that NGO that has been attacking you all these years shifted gears and you both started to see each other as allies rather than opponents?  Coca-Cola and World Wildlife Fund have managed it.  They’ve had to find new ways to communicate, new ways to work with the other, and as a result, have become mutually stronger and more effective in their missions, activities, and business.  Check out Peter Senge’s Necessary Revolution for an outstanding review of what these two companies learned and how we can all benefit.  More and more NGOs are looking to help and be a resource for businesses. What if an NGO was so intimately involved in your sustainability strategy, that they had your back and would be willing to speak on your behalf?

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Matthew Rochte is Sr Director Corporate Sustainability Services at Do Well Do Good, LLC.