5 Predictions for Sustainability & CSR in 2011

5 Predictions for Sustainability & CSR in 2011

As we move forward in 2011, what can those of us working in the field of sustainability and corporate social responsibility expect this year? Some big things happened in 2010 that helped shape the field, both good and bad, as the economy started to catch its footing again. Expect to see even more this year.

For the first time, a variety of factors are actually leading to something of a "race to the top" among organizations of almost all types and sizes in efforts to have positive environmental and social impacts. The business world has undergone a huge evolution in recent years, as has the social sector. Some organizations have started treading where no one ever imagined they would just a few short years ago.

Pollyannaism? Perhaps, but I think infectious optimism will continue to produce effective solutions to our most pressing problems from the amazing leaders in our field. With the assumption that these trends will only continue, here are my top five predictions for sustainability and CSR (terms I use interchangeably) in 2011 and beyond.

1. Increasing momentum for the field of business sustainability.

Economists are predicting that we'll start to see more traction in the economy. Even as I write this, the Wall Street Journal reports that economists see greater risk from an economy that overheats in 2011 than from growth that's too slow. I've seen sustainability grow through the "great recession," with the underlying dynamics becoming only stronger. With an economy picking up steam, the sustainability momentum will not only continue, but will also increase.

2. Sustainability through leadership will become more important.

It will no longer be enough to simply respond -- stakeholders will become increasingly interested in seeing organizations identify and lead on areas where they are capable of doing so. Moreover, many sustainability leaders, having seen the benefits of their own proactivity, will continue to find more areas to be proactive and take leadership -- and will find it less necessary to react to what others around them are doing.

Examples of such leadership are Starbuck's search for a sustainable solution to disposal cups and its recent Beta Cup campaign, and Timberland's "Green Index" on its products and packaging and "Eco Index" efforts for industry standards.

3. More accuracy and less misleading fluff in sustainability communications.

This will hold true for both external and internal communications for a variety of reasons:

  • The Federal Trade Commission's newly proposed Green Guides, released in October, will start to shape behavior, as well as affect the tone of new marketing and communications campaigns -- and final guides are likely to be released this year.
  • Skeptical consumers and NGOs will demand less fluff or will continue to "out" organizations that spread greenwash via social media and other channels, forcing ever greater transparency and dialogue.
  • Competitors will increasingly become watchdogs over each other, as P&G did with Seventh Generation last autumn, having recognized the increasing importance of sustainability communications to competition.
  • And organizations are continuing to more substantially integrate sustainability at the individual employee and candidate level via effective communications as well as in other important ways.

This trend will be a huge help to those who have taken substantive steps on the sustainability journey -- figuring out how to best talk about what they are doing in regards to sustainability has often been as big a challenge as any aspect of actually "walking" it.

4. A greater need to address the end of life cycle for both products and packaging.

Manufacturers and recyclers that can reuse raw materials from old products will be at a distinct advantage over those who don't and are subject to shortages, rising prices and increasing costs around environmental regulations. Nowhere is this more obvious than in China's recent tightening of exports of rare earth elements needed for the manufacture of a large variety of products.

Moreover, there can be no real long-term sustainability without the ability to reclaim and reuse the raw materials from the vast majority of products produced today.

5. Companies will increasingly realize the importance of resilience.

Some smart thinkers are beginning to realize that even in a best case scenario, humanity will have to adapt to a world that is warming, an increasing scarcity of water and other important resources, and many other challenges with massive effects both foreseeable and unforeseeable. "How will we best prepare for and adapt to such realties?" therefore becomes the multi-trillion dollar question.

Resilience is an idea that helps answer this question -- one increasingly discussed through the great recession and whose time has come. The Center for Resilience at Ohio State University defines resilience for our purposes as "the capacity of a system to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of unforeseen changes, even catastrophic incidents." Many of the concepts of resilience overlap and are intertwined with sustainability.

Nothing that came out of COP 16 last month changed the need for resilience thinking for climate change purposes, for example, and it will gain as much traction in this context as anywhere.

Crystal ball photo CC-licensed by Frogman!