Five Big Sustainability Prophesies For 202427 December, 2023 / Articles
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Are these trends or wishes? Perhaps a bit of both. Now well into my third decade as a sustainability professional I’ve developed a spidey-sense for how the winds are blowing.
But, perhaps we aren’t just hostages to those squalls and instead can actively change the weather. For 2024 I hope each of these become self-fulfilling prophesies;
1. From Managerial to Entrepreneurial Sustainability
‘Managerial sustainability’ means building out compliance, structuring comparable action and growing the formal architecture of disclosure and performance. It’s about creating a level playing field of rules for everyone. It favours those with their feet on the ground able to build a foundation for change.
We’ve been in a managerial cycle of sustainability for at least two years, building up to some major regulatory requirements. The first half of 2024 will be dominated by the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) taking effect on Jan 1. and the USA’s SEC climate-related disclosures expected in April. Since at least 2020, companies have been building out their reporting functions and structuring information flows to meet these demands. Folks who can count carbon have been in high demand!
But 2024 will see the cycle switch, because those managerial systems will be up and running.
Now, leaders will have the bandwidth to return to entrepreneurial endeavours – developing new products, innovative models, and big solutions for sustainability. Looking for advantage rather than compliance. Seeking value rather than risk.
I anticipate a spate of thought leadership, innovative announcements, and action to raise the ceiling of innovation, not just the floor of compliance. Towards the end of 2024, look out – big ideas will be back.
2. From Net Zero to Solutions Agenda
We can only reach net zero together; it is a global goal not an individual target.
And to reach it, we need companies to radically shift how they think about their own net zero plans. To realise they are mutually dependant upon each industry solving carbon challenges for each other. I call this the ‘solutions agenda’.
Many businesses are waking up to the fact they may be a source of climate solutions not just carbon emissions. Because corporate products, services and influence can affect climate on a societal level. From avoided emissions to new definitions of a climate solution, the debate has shifted towards a more comprehensive role for business.
Of course, not every industry will be a winner in the solutions agenda. Over 200+ companies acknowledged this by calling for ending fossil fuels ahead of COP28.
But as we enter this new entrepreneurial era for sustainability, solutions will be front and centre.
3. From Purpose Marketing to Honest Products
Purpose and cause marketing have been on the rocks for a while. In the era of ‘green hushing’ and post-pandemic economic woes, hackneyed cause campaigns have struggled.
The, co-ordinated attacks on ‘woke’ messaging by the US right-wing had genuine consequences for brands like Bud Light
Plus, a massive push-back on greenwash has fuelled brands’ ‘purpose anxiety’ The Financial Conduct Authority in the UK has just published strict new rules on green claims. The USA Federal Trade Commission is due to follow suit in 2024. And the EU has proposed a Green Claims Directive with suggested fines of up to 4% of the greenwasher’s total annual revenue.
So, is sustainability marketing over? Not at all, it’s just teetering on a much- needed upgrade.
Firstly, brands need to stop making it all about them. Gen Zs simply aren’t going to gushingly applaud (or reward) purpose campaigns the way Millennials did. Acting responsibly, respecting diversity and reducing environmental impact aren’t medal-worthy endeavours anymore – they are table stakes.
Instead, Gen Zs want honesty and some humility. Less celebratory claims more product proof. They want to know exactly who made my clothes, or to track back the food on their fork to the farmer who grew it. In 2024 we’ll see fewer flashy purpose campaigns but many more product-based sustainability disclosures.
4. From Social Impact to Justice
Companies must get comfortable with the ‘J’ word. Climate justice, economic justice, racial justice and gender justice – harder terms for harder times. For far too long ‘social impact’ or the ‘S’ in ESG has felt discretionary. Or worse – about brands adopting a social cause to burnish their reputation. Many of those social impact campaigns were skin deep – women’s empowerment causes promoted by companies with all-male boards, youth wellbeing campaigns run by brands paying poverty wages to young factory workers.
The justice agenda demands more. It asks hard questions about tax, employment rights, exclusion, unionisation, IP and who benefits from supply chain labour. Harder to run a fun comms campaign about, but increasingly necessary to stay relevant. Companies are still far more comfortable with social impact phraseology rather than justice, talking about livelihoods rather than poverty, with inclusion rather than bias. But that is set to change in 2024 as more Gen Z will be in full time work than Boomers.
Words matter, and if the terms ‘justice’ doesn’t factor in your sustainability strategy, is it really fit for 2024?
5. From Business Case to Personal Case
Since my new book, The Solutionists, was published in April, I’ve been invited by over 50 companies to speak to their teams. I know my job – get folks from every function motivated to activate sustainability.
Over the years, I’ve generated a compelling business case for action, all backed- up with a powerful argument on the moral and social reasons for action. With boards and Top 200 teams, that business case moves mountains. But with wider teams? That business case just doesn’t cut it. Because if we’re honest most folks don’t skip into work committed to another day of generating shareholder value. For most, their job is about them, their career, their future.
So, when presenting to entire functions (with thousands of people), I share that according to LinkedIn the hiring salary for workers with at least one green skill is 29% higher than the workforce average.
The 29% fact perks people up, they ask questions and push on what green skills they need. Green skills in 2024 are going to be like digital skills in 2004. I remember when some CEOs would print out their emails and hand-write responses in Montblanc penmanship. Those guys didn’t last long.
In 2024, we need to add the ‘personal case’ for action to our moral and business cases. And that might spark more change than we can imagine.
That’s it for my 2024 prophesies. You might have expected to see trends like, ‘growth in AI solutions’, or ‘demand for renewable energy’, but I wouldn’t be much of a prophetess listing out trends that have been obvious for years. Instead, these are changes to the sustainability mood music and what we’ll all be talking about. I’ll do my darndest over the coming months to make them come true.