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10 sustainability and social impact trends that we're watching

Targets in sustainability are now firmly rooted in science and everyone — from consumers to investors — is watching.

Corporate professionals having a strategy discussion in office board room.

Photo by Jacob Lund on Shutterstock.

In so many ways, 2020 was a seismic year for sustainability and social impact. From a global pandemic to raging wildfires and the changing face of both work and wellbeing, the last 12 months will have a legacy that lasts far beyond COVID-19.

Here are 10 trends that came out of 2020 that all sustainability/CSR professionals need to know about. 

The threat of climate change has new urgency

First came the bushfires that devastated in Australia. Then a spate of severe storms and tropical cyclones that swept the U.S. and Asia, followed by floods and searing heat. 2020 broke all sorts of unwelcome weather records, destroying properties, businesses and lives. All which gave the threat from climate change a brand new urgency, for both individuals and companies. In fact, 81 percent of Americans accept that the Earth’s temperature is increasing — the highest level since 1996. 

Even more significant though, the drastic response to how we lived and worked as a result of COVID-19 demonstrated what truly is possible in the face of a crisis. As one expert said: "The COVID-19 pandemic has been a unique test for how people feel about climate change when faced with a different global crisis."

Investors have begun to reframe risk

"The evidence on climate risk is compelling investors to reassess core assumptions about modern finance," wrote Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of BlackRock, in a letter to fellow business leaders in January. In particular, Fink pointed out, there is increasing acknowledgement that climate risk equals investment risk. 

This awareness is changing the shape of investments, with environmental, social, governance (ESG) becoming core criteria for many investors, leading to brand new opportunities for people, products and services that provide a boost to the planet, as well as line investor’s pockets. 

Consumers expect purpose to outweigh profit

Although the concept of a purpose-led business has been gaining traction for a few years, the rising economic clout of both millennials and Generation Z mean that in 2020 it reached a tipping point. In fact, in 2020 millennials made up 40 percent of all consumers, and 40 percent of this demographic (according to a survey by Deloitte) believe that the goal of business shouldn’t be a healthy bottom line, but contributing to society. 

The impact of this consumer demand on how businesses are run, how they make products and deliver services, who they hire and how they define their values is a huge. 

The corporate world looks to lead on climate policy

A combination of consumer demand, plus the very real impact of climate change on supply chains, manufacturing and distribution, has led to a brand-new interest from big business in weighing in on issues of climate policy, both within business and within government public policy. 

As of 2020, STBI corporate members represent a combined market value of more than $10 trillion — accounting for more emissions than France and Spain combined.

In October 2019 a group of 200 institutional investors and leading sustainable business organizations even penned an open letter to American CEOs making the business case for climate policy action, calling on business leaders to use their voice and influence policy change at the highest level. This paves the way for brand new roles and opportunities for those skilled in climate policy advocacy. 

Targets in sustainability are firmly rooted in science

In 2020 the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI), a partnership between the World Wildlife Find, the CDP, the U.N. and World Resources Institute, welcomed on board its 1,000th member. First set up in 2015, the collaboration aims to celebrate and inspire those companies that commit to targets on greenhouse gas emissions based on leading climate science. As of 2020, their corporate members represent a combined market value of more than $10 trillion — accounting for more emissions than France and Spain combined. 

That kind of clout puts science-based targets firmly in the mainstream, upping the ante for all companies to deliver and report on these targets. 

More support than ever around achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

With only nine years until we reach 2030, the deadline for the U.N.’s 17 SDGs, a huge number of resources are out there for both companies and individuals looking to brush up their knowledge of the goals, and advance toward the ambitious targets set. 

Top of the list is the SDG Academy, an online platform of free educational resources compiled by some of the world’s leading sustainability experts. Plus, the SDG Action manager, a free tool that walks you through the process of assessing your own performance toward the SDGs, including gaps in performance and suggestions for improvement. 

Social justice has shifted to the top of the agenda

According to a survey of 150 executives by top consultancy firm Porter Novelli in 2020, 71 percent said never, in their entire careers, had they felt more pressure to engage with issues of social justice. The Black Lives Matter movement, which gained greater global awareness in 2020 following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, has propelled debate around issues of discrimination, diversity, inclusion and allyship across all sectors. The pandemic too has highlighted vast disparities in access to healthcare across the U.S. 

Although not all corporate responses struck the right chord (take a look at five that worked and five that didn’t), the last year highlighted the need for business leaders to speak up and take action on social justice. As a result, demand for experts in workplace diversity became one of the fasting growing roles recruited for, according to LinkedIn. 

The concept of wellbeing took on new meaning

Even prior to the pandemic, a focus on individual health and wellbeing was set to be a major agenda of 2020. And with the stress and instability created by the pandemic — plus the sudden remoteness of managers from their teams — the duty of care between companies and their employees took on a whole new dimension of importance, especially related to mental health

… as did the workplace

Although current requirements to work from home may be temporary, the legacy of the pandemic on how and where we work look set to be long lasting. According to one study, 34 percent of roles in the U.S. could plausibly be done remotely, permanently, with major employers, including Nationwide, Nielsen and Salesforce, committing to brand new work-from-home flexibility for the foreseeable future. 

For sustainability and social impact, professionals this has the potential to rapidly broaden the scope of opportunities available to them, with geography, cost of living or other accessibility restrictions far less of a barrier. 

Sustainability and social impact experts never have been in more demand

The upshot of all these broader trends? There has never been a better time to be, or become, a sustainability and social impact professional. According to one survey, 88 percent of top executives said they understand that now more than ever, companies must lead with purpose, while three-quarters of sustainability professionals say they’ve seen an increase in responsibilities and expectations from leadership since the pandemic. 

In short, there’s never been a better time to accelerate your career in the sustainability and social impact arena. 

So, if you’re just getting started, take a look at my blog on "Four ways to launch your career into the impact sector." Or if you’re looking to really take things to the next level in 2021, then why not get in touch for a consultation with me? To book a 30-minute trial session, just click here or to buy my new practical guide book, "Good Work," here.

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