10 trends driving sustainable business over the next decade

09 April 2020 Consultancy.uk 5 min. read
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Veris Strategies, a sustainability and cultural change consultancy, recently published its ‘Think 2030: Ten trends for sustainable business’ report, highlighting ten global trends that are likely to drive priorities for sustainable business over the next decade. The firm’s founder and lead author Kate Cawley walks through the top trends identified. 

Looking ahead, we believe organisations will be increasingly judged on performance against external rather than internal goals. The pandemic is amplifying the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as it overwhelms global health systems with barriers to accessing this healthcare, having dramatic consequences. Universal healthcare and access to affordable and reliable energy fall under SDG targets 3.8 and 7.1. The ability to make these ‘big picture’ connections when target-setting will become business-critical. 

From a climate perspective, the race towards net zero may be superseded by efforts to turn carbon liabilities (pollutants) into assets (resources), as countries look to jump-start their economies while capitalising on the sharp drops in emissions and air pollutions brought about by Covid-19. Rather than aim for carbon-neutrality, companies may look to become climate-positive, enabling them to out more back into the environment than they take out.

Ten trends for sustainable business

We are also seeing the emergence of radical transparency, as organisations are called to account over their Covid-19 responses. Businesses will be expected to engage in new levels of disclosure and take action to remove any murkiness behind their processes, products and supply chains. As they grabble with issues of trust, competition and reputation, working out what information is safe or relevant to share is likely to become a new type of risk assessment for them. 

The pandemic continues to have a detrimental impact on big ticket environmental issues like plastics, with soaring demand for bottled water and fresh grocery packaging as people stockpile and look to reduce their risk of catching the virus. This underlines the importance of pragmatic thinking over ‘speed solving’ when it comes to tackling the issue of single use. For businesses, this means changing tack and addressing the deep-seated problems that such dilemmas pose, rather than racing to develop over-simplified solutions that often lead to worse outcomes.

The trend for designing universal solutions that work, not isolated fixes that fail, forms part of a systems thinking approach and we will see more organisations adopt this over the coming decade. It involves companies understanding that their actions occur within a larger context, in which everything is interconnected. The circular economy is one example of this, as is the multi-capital models used within integrated reporting. 

Systems thinking heavily relies on problem solving, and the notion of ‘tech for good’ should come to the fore as organisations look to harness digital technologies to act more responsibly. Advances in fields such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and biotechnology will all drive transformational change – whether its improving land use, air and water quality, making supply chains more transparent or changing the way we consume. 

“Deforestation, the collapse of major ice sheets and ocean coral reef bleaching are all happening at an alarming rate. Helping our planet is now business-critical.”
– Kate Cawley, Veris Strategies

As businesses rise to the challenge of ensuring the planet doesn’t reach breaking point, the need for global governance will become apparent. Governments may become more progressive and start to mandate purpose for business through state-led intervention. One example of this is the 400 Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes already operating across the world, obligating companies to remain accountable for their products beyond purchase and use.

Covid-19 is fast underscoring the fragility of society, forcing companies to define their key duties in a more social context, especially in terms of ethical behaviour and philanthropy. What we are effectively seeing here is the rise of corporate citizenship, a trend that will harden as organisations look to embed it into their core strategies and identities. Expect new C-suite roles to come to the fore, such as Chief Purpose Officers, to help them operate within a future context of public approval.

Demand for new skills and tools built around lateral thinking and emotional intelligence is  also likely to grow as organisations prepare for Generation Z, which will soon make up much of the workforce. This means rethinking how they engage and deliver to a new breed of digital natives. Covid-19 is already making flexible and remote working the new normal, but inclusive workplaces will be highly sought after as Gen Z is poised to become the most diverse generation to ever enter the workplace.

If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it is that organisations must be one step ahead if they are to successfully navigate the next ten years of uncertainty and remain relevant. Key to this will be the ability to move past the status quo, to reimagine, and to develop the capability to shift existing markets or create new ones through sustainable product and service innovation.