The Sustainability Landscape in 2019 The Sustainability Landscape in 2019

Key Themes Shaping Sustainability This Year

2018 marked a year where there can no longer be any confusion about the challenge ahead of us.

In October, the IPCC concluded that there are only 12 years left for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C before the catastrophic impacts of climate change begin to set in.

In November, following on from WWF’s Living Planet Report that highlighted the 60% decline of wildlife populations over the last 50 years, the UN warned that the world has only two years to rethink its relationship with nature or risk bringing about our own extinction. Wider shifts from society gave us more reason to sit up and pay attention: civil society reckoned with the scale of the issue of plastic pollution; the #MeToo movement thrust the treatment of women under the spotlight; and the world began to grapple with the ethical implications of the ever-evolving 4th Industrial Revolution. All this in the context of a rapid rise in support for populism around the world.

For businesses more than ever the pressure is on to step up to its changing relationship with society. Incremental action just won’t cut it; business needs to embrace significant transformative change. The companies that will win won’t be those who try and position themselves in tomorrow’s markets but those who create them.

It’s timely therefore that 2019 is a year of renewal. Many of the current sustainability strategies are heading towards their 2020 deadlines. The time is ripe for renewed ambitions and active strategies – those that balance long-term direction with short term agility, and which, if fully integrated, can drive the competitive difference in the face of a fast-shifting business landscape. 

What trends will shape 2019 for sustainability?

Every year around Christmas I’m asked what I expect next year will bring in sustainability. After many years my answer has become laden with caveats. While the core sustainability issues we face rarely change year to year, the topics that boil up making it into mainstream headlines, the hearts of consumers and the heads of investors are down to an often-random mix of unpredictable factors. Last year’s plastics debate was fuelled by the world-class videography of a BBC film team. Some issues are mere flashes in the pan others truly stick. That’s why we at Salterbaxter espouse active strategies so strongly because they can help our clients to continually track and respond to shifts in stakeholder sentiment and corporate practice. They have never been more critical.

Nonetheless, it is worth shedding some light on the general themes that have emerged last year that will set the tone for sustainability in 2019: 

 

Tackling systemic inequality

The rise and spread of success amongst populist parties last year (that’s likely to continue) have revealed one key thing: inequality is one of the defining issues of our time. The French economist Picketty has pushed inequality to the forefront of the public debate in recent years, but in 2018 movements of all shapes and sizes have pushed into a new realm of consciousness. As the debate around inequality rages on through movements like the Gilets Jaunes of France and #MeToo, businesses should be looking at their own contribution to this issue in 2019. Statistics released by the Economic Policy Institute show that on average current CEO wages are 271 times higher than the pay of a typical American worker (compared to 30 times higher in 1978). As the conditions that contribute to inequality are put under the microscope in 2019, businesses need to understand, quantify and rethink how they create or destroy value for society. Employees themselves are increasingly aware of these systemic issues and demanding change, evidenced by the spate of high-profile walk-outs in 2018 at firms like Google. Expect topics such as this to be a key discussion point during numerous high-level events happening this year. In June, the International Labour Conference will meet to discuss implementing a standard setting-process on a law that sets the baseline for acting to eradicate violence and harassment. In July, the UN High-Level Forum will convene around the theme of “Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality.”

Climate change meets social activism

 

The optimism that followed the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement is rapidly being replaced by widespread recognition of the scale of the task ahead and the ineffectiveness of the current incremental approach. The urgency of systems-level change is fast reaching the mainstream with the civil activist group Extinction Rebellion (who closed down five key bridges in London late last year) and France’s “Gilets Verts” becoming the first signs of growing popular dissent around the slow progress of tackling climate change. The voices, buying power and objections of the next generations are becoming increasingly influential. As civil pressure rises (and populist governments distance themselves from their predecessor’s climate pledges) businesses will be under more pressure from stakeholders to provide immediate and ground-breaking solutions to this global issue.

 

Plastic pollution debate continues

 

‘Single-use’ has been named as the Collins word of the year and cemented plastic pollution as the defining sustainability issue of 2018. Thrust into the public consciousness by the BBC’s landmark Blue Planet II, companies and governments around the world have been scrambling to respond to the issue. 2019 will inevitably see the plastic issue remain at the heart of public concern as new corporate and government commitments are announced and pressure to meet commitments increases. We can expect that the core issue that triggered the current plastic debate—China’s import ban on global recycling in January 2018—to redouble itself in 2019 as Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand are widely expected to follow in China’s footsteps. Reinforced by a rise in plastic taxes around the world from the UK to Bali, the plastics landscape will continue to change throughout 2019.

More talk about food waste

 

As the issue of plastic captures the popular imagination, awareness of the issue of waste, in general, has been bolstered. None more so than the topic of food waste, which has found itself at the heart of the debate around sustainable packaging. The role and utility of plastic packaging have been lost in the debate around plastics to date, but it is important: a third of all food in the world for human consumption never reaches the table. If food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The Sustainable Development Goals sets a target of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030 and sustainable packaging (whether this is plastic or not) is essential to solving this. The scale of the food waste challenge is colossal and increasing resources are being deployed to tackle it. Following the 2017 announcement of the £500,000 Food Waste Reduction Fund, the UK government announced last year an additional £15 million in the form of a scheme designed to tackle surplus food from retail and manufacturing. As the plastic debate continues into 2019—and becomes more nuanced—we can expect to see interest in its intersection with food waste grow.

 

Sustainable fashion takes off

 

Burberry got caught short in July as one of the many global fashion houses burning millions of pounds worth of bags, clothes and perfumes. Their resulting commitment to renounce this practice has come as part of a broader shift towards more a sustainable apparel industry. From the suite of designers who have vowed to ban fur from their collections to Adidas’ success with their ocean plastic collaboration with Parley, sustainable fashion is going mainstream. This trend has been underway for several years, but in 2018 global fashion search platform Lyst has recorded a 47% increase in the last 12 months for searches using sustainability-related keywords such as “organic cotton” and “vegan leather.” Veja has been a big winner in the shift to sustainable apparel, with influencers from Emma Watson to Meghan Markle donning the footwear brand and causing a surge in popularity. With the launch of the United Nations fashion industry charter for climate change just before Christmas, 2019 will be a year in which global fashion brands will start thinking about sustainability less as a niche product offering and more as an industry-wide commitment to change.

 

That’s my take on 2019. What’s yours? Let me know at nicolas.heath@salterbaxter.com.

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