"We dream (and work for) a better world. So part of our (un)scientific methodology will include thumb sucking and throwing our pennies into the wishing well."
By Henk Campher, SVP, Edelman
Each year, we sustainability wonks look into our post-consumer recycled crystal ball to predict what will happen in the year to come. And each year we’re surprised.
The reason is pretty simple – we’re not scientists who can predict what will happen based on established patterns and principles; we’re forced to follow the General Theory of Human Reliability – the theory that we can always rely on humans to do something unexpected.
We couldn’t predict the almost overnight successes of Tom’s Shoes or Kiva if you paid us and we still think water is going to be “the next big thing.” It doesn’t mean we can’t give it a good shot though. As we make our predictions, we’ll set a few basic guidelines:
- The sustainability world isn’t prone to major revolutions. We tend to see things in constant motion – things evolve and improve constantly. Using this knowledge we can try to predict what might move from the fringes toward the mainstream – what will become the norm in 2013. And, of course, using this same insight, we can try to look at what are early emerging changes taking place.
- But we also live in hope in this world of sustainability. We dream (and work for) a better world. So part of our (un)scientific methodology will include thumb sucking and throwing our pennies into the wishing well. No list will be complete without including a few that would be on a “wish list” of sustainability trends.
Armed with this knowledge here's my best shot at predicting how the sustainability landscape will evolve in 2013:
1. Purpose products (and services) go mainstream.
Social entrepreneurs are old news. In a good way. They’re now solidly mainstream and part of how the world is changing. Tom’s Shoes and now the sale of Zipcar to Avis are proof points that “purpose” products and services are shifting from fringe offers to mainstream products. Seventh Generation isn’t much of a fringe player anymore either. Nor are Chobani and Stonyfield that revolutionized yogurt. We can expect this trend to continue in 2013 and find new purpose products to become mainstream.
2. Leaders lead…
Whether it’s companies huddling together to take a stand through BICEP, or individual companies redefining sustainability in the way Unilever, Marks & Spencer and Timberland have done over the last few years. But this won’t be enough for much longer as true leadership must redefine sustainability and call out practices and thinking that aren’t in line with sustainability. The leadership of these companies is being undermined by the impact of companies that lobby against or do not believe in sustainability.
Furthermore, the lack of political leadership and the emerging Millennia’ expectations will require business leaders to redefine their own voice and visibility. Leaders lead and we can expect more companies and their leaders to speak out against those who undermine their own value systems and business practices.
3. Different strokes are for different folks.
The challenge in sustainability has always been the need to have a single definition or methodology to explain sustainability no matter the type of company, industry or specific needs to the local communities or country. The result has been a field dominated by western thinking and everything moving toward the lowest common denominator. And we’ve seen the problems this has created in simple things like rankings and rating systems.
We are social scientists and do not need a unified theory. In 2013, we’ll continue to see a move away from this centralized thinking to defining sustainability according to the major impacts of the company and the specific needs of the people and environment impacted. In theory we do this already but we tend to rate companies by comparing apples with oranges.
As we mature as a discipline we’ll continue to expand our approach to make it specific to each company in the same way investors invest and focus on the dynamics of individual companies.
4. Superficial sustainability is dead.
Expecting companies to be more sustainable throughout their supply chains is not new. What is new and emerging is the expectation placed on how far this responsibility goes – both how far down the supply chain and the number of issues it targets. Just looking at first- or second-level suppliers or only focusing on the major issues is not acceptable anymore, a shift being led by the clothing and textiles sector. We can expect this trend to expand into more industries such as food and electronics in coming months.
5. Sustainable consumption is redefined.
For several years we’ve been stuck on one solution: Get consumers to buy more sustainable stuff.
Well, that always made me feel a bit uncomfortable – sustainable consumption will have to mean less consumption. We’ll always have fast fashion and throwaway products, but the Patagonia route will become increasingly mainstream in 2013. The reasons for this are simple yet twofold– people do not have the same confidence that the economy will fix everything anymore and disposable income is decreasing and stretched even further by new demands on savings, retirement etc. Therefore, buying less stuff of higher quality and reusing and repurposing stuff will become more commonplace in 2013.
As will the trend of buying second-hand goods and giving them fancy names to make us feel like we are still in fashion.
6. Activist campaigns continue to decentralize.
We’ve seen a steady move away from campaign driven by large NGOs to the democracy of campaigns. Social media (and a touch of ego and selfishness) has made it possible for individuals to drive their own campaigns focusing on the issues they feel close to.
Sometimes it creates white noise with too many campaigns.
But sometimes it works and somehow creates an even bigger but leaderless campaign that creates a big impact – such as the anti-bottled water campaign. These are challenging times for traditional NGOs but interesting times for small and impactful movements to change the world we’re living in. How to harness and bring these citizen campaigns together will be crucial to the survival for traditional NGOs and also key to unlocking citizen action for change.
7. It’s the end of wealth as we know it.
It’s just not okay for so few to own so much. 2013 will be the year when we start to seriously look at ways to create a more economically equal society. While it will be mainly focused on the western world for now,, the developing world has been focusing on this for decades and the impact will be felt globally.
Governments are already eyeing higher taxes while billionaires are giving money away to good causes, but these initiatives don’t address the underlying challenge of an increasingly unjust spread of wealth.
8. Finished products come under scrutiny.
We’ll see a renewed focus on the impact of the finished product compared to the heavy focus on production over the last few years. This is partly due to the expected changes in consumption patterns but also because of the challenges we’ve experienced with rankings and ratings (extractive industries ranking high on sustainability when their final product might not be as sustainable) and the impact of the product on people and the environment (tobacco, weapons, processed food, fast food, etc.).
In 2013 we’ll see a more balanced view of production vs. the finished product
9. Service impacts enter the radar screen.
Service companies such as financial institutions have had a mostly narrow focus from a sustainability perspective. Their focus has been mostly philanthropy and education. But the collapse of the financial market and the impact that had on the average citizen is forcing a closer examination of the sustainability practices of service providers.
The impacts of services and products are increasingly being evaluated on the same plane: What is the impact on people, planet and profits now and in the future? Communications agencies, legal firms, auditors, and consultancies will begin to consider their performance and establish goals for improvement in 2013 and beyond.
10. We start to care where our gadgets come from.
The electronic goods we so readily buy and dispose of are not high value products anymore. They’re as disposable as clothing and can easily be replaced as prices continue to drop. We can expect that some of the sustainability dynamics of similar disposable products will start having an impact on how we view our electronic goods.
How they are manufactured, the chemicals inside them and our exposure to them, recyclability and reusability will all become more important as our interaction patterns with them change.
We’ll soon start expecting fair trade versions, just as we do for coffee.
And with that, I hold my breath in the hope that water will rise even faster in 2013 to take its rightful place as today’s “next big thing.” You’d have thought events on the East Coast of the U.S. in 2012 would prod even the most conspicuous consumer or corporate road warrior to put it on their top five issues to talk about at dinner or conference table.
Or maybe I shouldn’t hold my breath as I head out for lunch.