What were the biggest sustainability trends of 2012?

As 2012 comes to a close, GreenBiz asked executives from a range of companies and organizations to reflect on the past year and look at what lies ahead.

They obliged by telling us about their accomplishments, frustrations, lessons learned, their thoughts about the biggest issues of 2012 and what they think will drive sustainability in 2013.

A few big themes emerged: the failure to make significant progress at major global conclaves -- Rio+20 and the Doha Climate Change conference in particular -- the lack of urgency and action from policymakers on climate change, and the need for stronger, more transparent standards and ratings systems to meet increased consumer, investor, and corporate demand.

Here's what they said when we asked:

What were the most significant sustainability trends in 2012?

Beth Shiroishi, Vice President, Sustainability & Philanthropy, AT&T:

The emergence of water as a business risk. As the cost of water increases, and it becomes a sometimes contentious commodity in many regions like the drought-stricken Southwest, managing thirsty commercial buildings is going to become an increasingly important challenge for building owners. This is the driving force behind why we are working with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to develop operational improvements and best practices that can cut water, chemical and energy use in facility cooling systems and improve overall building efficiency.

Angela Nahikian, Director of Global Environmental Sustainability, Steelcase:

Material chemistry making a move to the mainstream. Increased expectations in the supply chain. The scale of investment in sustainability by large corporations/brands is increasing significantly.

 

Amy Hargroves, Manager, Corporate Social Responsibility, Sprint Nextel Corporation:

• The significant uptick in the role of supply chain management in sustainability and recognition ot its importance and impact.

• The growing awareness of the potential of the ICT (information and communications technology) and the telecommunications sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through communications and enablement solutions.

• The growing importance of metrics with meaning and context.

Neil Hawkins, Vice President, Global sustainability and EH&S, Dow Chemical Co.:

Lack of government money due to debt crises is going to be a significant barrier to progressive action.

 

Leisha John, Americas Director of Environmental Sustainability, Ernst & Young:

• We’re seeing an increase in interest from the financial side about sustainability efforts. In a recent Ernst & Young/GreenBiz study, 65 percent of respondents said their CFO has become involved in sustainability. Also, this year has been another year of extreme weather.

• With some of the hottest months on record, one of the worst wildfire season in years, and droughts combined with flooding, weather has been unpredictable to say the least -- and costly. Costs for Superstorm Sandy, for example, are estimated in the $50 billion range just for the clean-up in the New York region. Businesses need to have the conversation about what weather risks means for their planning.

• Finally, there’s more general attention being paid to environmental and social issues. Shareholder resolutions related to these topics dominated the 2012 proxy season, making up 40 percent of all submitted. Additionally, this year the SEC issued a final rule to implement the conflict minerals disclosure requirements in Dodd-Frank.

Next page: Scaling sustainability to a global level?