6 sustainability trends that GreenBiz readers engaged with most in 2019

aerial view of desk with sign that says 2020
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2019: the last year that the United States will take part in the Paris Agreement. The year with the hottest June on record since record-keeping began in 1880. The year a significant part of the Amazon rainforest went up in flames.

But there’s another side to the story.

The year that a climate activist won TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year honor. The year that CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies released a statement redefining the purpose of a corporation and calling for leadership in issues such as climate change. The year that automakers and the Trump administration got into a fight about clean air standards. 

It’s been a year of increased attention to climate change — in no small part because climate change’s impacts are more visible than ever before. This year that our planet inched ever-closer to warming to 2 degrees Celsius was also a year of mass mobilization against climate change. 

We’ve covered all of these climate stories and more on GreenBiz. As we reviewed the year in our biggest articles, we could see clear patterns emerging in what our readers were drawn to. Check out the biggest trends that our audience engaged with the most in 2019.

1. Single-use plastic, not so fantastic

The striking visual of the sea turtle with the straw in its nose may have exploded into public consciousness in late 2018, but it stayed with you all into 2019. 

Some of our biggest stories of the year focused on plastics. We identified packaging alternatives to plastics, questioned where bio-based plastics fit into a circular economy, explored consumer awareness of single-use plastic issues and investigated the truth about ocean plastics.

Of special note is the story you clicked on the most this past year: the launch of a new initiative that promises reusable packaging, an alternative to the traditional non-reusable packaging surrounding the food, beverage, hygiene and other consumer products you use every day. 

From Loop’s launch brings reusable packaging to the world’s biggest brands, by GreenBiz’s executive editor Joel Makower: 

Loop ... has amassed a blue-chip roster of companies, all of which are piloting a new system of high-quality packaging that can be returned and refilled again and again. In essence, it changes the ownership model of packaging from consumer to producer.

2. Human health, meet planetary health

The idea of "planetary health" is relatively new — it’s a part of public health that combines a focus on the health of human populations and the natural ecosystems surrounding them.

Increasingly, as climate change affects air quality, food nutrition, infectious disease spread and more, planetary health is human health. Our readers were interested in learning more.

Our articles ranged from Why human health must be at the center of climate action to The drive to embed "planetary health" impacts within corporate sustainability strategy.

Specifically, at the beginning of the year, a new report, EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems, came out that gave dietary recommendations based on both nutrition and sustainable growing criteria.

The article that our readership strongly engaged with was a deep dive into those recommendations: nutrition expert Erica Hauver's The inconvenient truths behind the "Planetary Health" diet, which asserts, "The scale of our health crisis is on par with the projected climate impacts of the future including premature deaths, large scale human suffering and economic impact."

3. Carbon removal proceedings

In order to keep Earth under 2 degrees Celsius warming while emissions are rising at their current rate, climate scientists have shown that we’ll need to draw down some of the pollutant chemicals in the air.

There are many ways to remove them, both natural and technological. The technological ways are relatively new and probably exciting to our readers, as you all were very interested in our stories on carbon removal technologies.

There’s "carbontech," the new term for products created from carbon removed from the air. "Climate-positive," or the strategies that companies are looking at to draw down more pollutants than they release. And "regeneration," the agricultural and ecological practices of enhancing soil health to increase sequestration of carbon dioxide.

Readers turned to our stories that explained and covered these new trends. The head of sustainability for natural and organic operations at General Mills, Shauna Sadowski, wrote about how regeneratively managing cattle can help sequester carbon in the soil.

We covered how IKEA is planning to spend millions on green energy, reforestation and forest protection projects in order to curb the climate impacts of its furniture business. 

Another big story was a new report out from economic researcher the Rhodium Group that analyzed the mix of carbon removal approaches, from industrial technologies such as direct air capture technologies to soil health. The senior policy advisor for carbon removal think tank Carbon180, Rory Jacobson, analyzed it for us, and you all tuned in.

4. People to watch

At the heart of climate change solutions and corporate sustainability are the people getting it done. We write about these individuals extensively, and our readers engaged with those articles.

Want to meet the 25 badass women shaking up the corporate climate movement? We’ve got you.

Feeling like getting to know the twentysomethings who are sustainability leaders in their companies, nonprofits and communities? We have you there, too, with our fourth annual cohort of GreenBiz 30 Under 30, who "work in the worlds of technology and tires, finance and forestry, retail and recovery operations … data centers and diversity, conservation and conservative politics."

How about the individuals flouting the status quo to create products, services and business models that are blazing a trail to a cleaner future? We honored the VERGE Vanguard earlier this year, the disruptors harnessing innovation to mitigate climate change and facilitate the clean economy transition.  

5. Action for the built environment

Our everyday lives are shaped by the built environment — homes, office buildings, roads, parks and more — around us. As climate change increases the frequency and severity of weather events that impact the built environment, making sure that our infrastructure and ecosystems are resilient is critical. 

In addition, the right design and development of buildings can help mitigate climate change and improve public health through efficient energy use, carbon-sequestering materials and other co-benefits.

When we ran the numbers, readers found much of our coverage of climate-resilient buildings and building materials especially interesting. We wrote about significant solutions to the problems that the built environment faces as the climate continues to change. 

We wrote about everything from how environmentally friendly timber is to progressive real estate regulations to a shift towards sustainable architecture as a profession. And of course, the story is not over — we’re looking ahead to the biggest trends in 2020.

6. Strategy patterns

Corporate strategy is already hard. Corporate sustainability strategy is even harder. We always have plenty of how-tos, case studies and wrap ups to help.

Many sustainability professionals read us for updates and insights in the field, so it makes sense that some of our most-read stories were about sustainability strategy.

Patagonia was a point of reference for two of our most popular stories. One was startup founder Harry Doull’s deep dive into the shortcomings of sustainable companies in this economy: Why we’re not creating the Patagonias of tomorrow. Then there was our article about why Patagonia and other companies look to the idea of good governance for sustainability strategy: Is governance the unexplored secret behind Patagonia’s business success?