3 Focus Areas According to Sustainability Experts

Sustainability is needed in light of all the current environmental and social challenges. From the way we use resources and manage waste, to the way we eat, shop or travel. ‘Most’ actors seem to agree on the urgency to deal with these challenges, but action is often slow or lacking. Both across companies and governments, but also on the level of the individual consumer. How is it that we often get lost in assigning responsibility, debating time-lines and committing to a solution? Knowingly or not. The question is: how can we find common ground and focus on the right challenges?

In 2019, we decided to conduct a research among a panel of experts (across The Nordics & The Netherlands) on what they predict to be the most important focus areas within sustainability in the upcoming years (Sustainable Brand Index, 2019). Based on the experience and analysis of these sustainability experts, we are able to draw a small picture of what the sustainability agenda of today and tomorrow might looks like.

We will see an increased focus on fewer critical questions and less ”hopping around” on a variety of different and (sometimes) not as relevant issues.


So what do experts agree on? We can see three overarching and interlinked areas, with a strong environmental focus. These are; climate change, a circular economy and biodiversity & eco-systems. They will demand an increased focus and need to be put at the core of international sustainability work in the upcoming years.

What topics within sustainability will gain an increased or decreased focus in the upcoming 2-3 years?

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Climate Change

Let’s start with (human-induced) climate change, also referred to as the climate crisis over the last years. It might not be surprising that this will be an increased focus area for both business and politics. Environmental disasters and rising CO2 levels are gaining more and more attention in newspapers and social media around the world. At the same time, climate change denial (and with that delay in actions) is met with growing irritation. No one could furthermore have missed the Fridays For Future movement by now. In August 2018, the at-the-time 15 years old Greta Thunberg started school striking outside the Swedish parliament for three weeks in order to protest against the climate action – or lack of climate action – taken by politicians. From September on, the strike was held every Friday and will continue until Swedish politicians provide policies that will guarantee a safe fulfilment of the Paris Climate Agreement. Fridays For Future has now spread all over the world and we are continuously seeing young people and movements striking outside parliaments globally in order to get their governments to take responsibility for their climate policies. This September 2019, government officials from all around the world will meet at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, to follow up and investigate the development of and progress on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This will be the first meeting of this kind since the goals were launched in 2015 and will be specifically focused on climate action and the 1,5 °C global warming target. Within the climate debate, experts predict an even stronger focus on clean energy and more efficient water use.

The climate crisis will also occupy more businesses and consumers, as the environmental impact of production and consumption is becoming more visible to everyone. Consumers are starting to demand more information about the footprint of products and services, while companies that are embracing transparency and climate action are seen as real game-changers. For a long time, the climate issue has been hard to grab onto for consumers and brands have mainly been focusing their communication on the ‘why’. Now, joint fatigue for Green Washing together with the past year’s events and attention on the climate crisis, have made both consumers and companies understand the severe state of the climate. With that the demand for more decisiveness and clear action has been rising. Consumer are ready to hear more about the ‘how’ and they want to make informed decisions when e.g. shopping, eating and travelling.

Circular Economy

On the solution-side of things, the concept and application of a circular economy has been growing rapidly. According to the Circularity Gap Report 2019, launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, only 9% of the world economy is circular. In order to unlock the capacity of current resources, reduce waste, and stimulate both ecological, economic and social sustainability through reduced inequalities, a transition from a linear model to a circular one is key.

Circularity is becoming a hygiene factor quickly. The EU has for example decided on a prohibition for single-use plastics, which will be implemented in 2021. In addition, the member states have to have a 90-percent collection target on plastic bottles in 2029, and plastic bottles must also contain at least 25% recycled material in 2025. This might seem like a symbolic issue, but it will have relatively large consequences for several industries. Even though governmental bodies are starting to see the need for a circular economy and are responsible for creating policies and financial incentives, the real and rapid changes will have to come from the business arena. A circular economy consists of more than just recycling. It is about increasing product and material longevity, minimising waste and facilitating services instead of ownership. The research on and use of more sustainable materials is also a crucial part of the transition to a circular economy. Overall, circularity provides a new way of thinking, designing, producing and consuming, which might hold the answer to a lot of the environmental (and social) challenges today. Experts therefore predict a stronger focus on a circular economy in the years to come. Especially barriers and solutions for circularity will be discussed and the role of the public sector is mainly seen in taking away those existing barriers.

Circular Economy Infographic by   Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Circular Economy Infographic by Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Biodiversity & Ecosystems

Third, biodiversity and eco-systems are and will become highly important. Exponential growth is dominating a lot of the world’s statistics, most evidently in our global population growth. With that resources are depleted at a rate like never before, which affects e.g. land use, water security, agricultural yields and forestation (to name a few). Both climate action and a circular economy are aiming to deal with the current unsustainable use of resources, which is directly related to biodiversity and ecosystems. Sustainability experts also point to the rise of rather new and alarming issues like; micro plastics in water and on land, antibiotics resistance and endangered insects.

In today’s globalised world, the environmental impact of consumption is often geographically separated from where production and sourcing takes place. One of the biggest challenges is making actors take responsibility for biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction. Do we dare to hold ourselves accountable or do we keep looking the other way and pointing into our neighbour’s direction?

So, no matter what changes we will see from politicians and business, climate change, a circular economy and biodiversity & ecosystems are the issues that experts unanimously state will gain an increased focus in the future. They will demand our attention and are crucial to sustainable development.

Does this mean we Should care less about social issues?

The most straightforward answer is no. Social issues, which often polarise to a larger extent, are however placed in the backseat for now, according to the experts. It is important to state that the focus areas in the top left corner, like human rights or diversity, will not become less important according to experts (see figure). However, not necessarily more important in light of sustainability. An issue that stands out a bit from the crowd is corruption and money laundry, mainly due to recent and recurring scandals across industries.

The upcoming years seem to require a strong environmental focus, but this does not means social aspects are not affected. Climate change and the availability of natural resources is playing an increasingly important role in e.g. well-being, human rights and labour conditions. Agricultural yields and the economic stability of farmers have for example never been this dependent on the climate before. Furthermore, issues like social responsibility (e.g. in light of migration and refugees), but also mental health are often a combination of environmental and social conditions.

The Role Of Digitalisation?

Digitalisation is an exhausted word to be honest. However, it could become the red thread for bringing sustainability work to the next level. This is something that the experts believe in, but also an area where there is still a lot of insecurity on how the landscape will develop. Digital technologies are for example more and more used for:

  • creating transparency & traceability (think about Blockchain)

  • resource efficiency (think about Big Data and 3D printing)

  • customisation (think about AI and Machine Learning)

  • creating more customised and shared services (Internet-of-Things)

There are a lot of smaller initiatives, like apps or platforms aimed at consumers. However, important knowledge on how large digital tools can benefit the climate is still missing. We are only at the beginning of syncing data, calculating impact and thinking about new ethical dilemma’s that might arise. The key is to determine how digital technologies can enhance sustainability on the long-term and help accelerate climate action, scale circular solutions, protect biodiversity and restore ecosystems.


Notes

Sustainable Brand Index™ is an independent brand study that measures and analyses how sustainability affects branding, communication and business development. Sustainable Brand Index™ has been founded in 2011 and has been conducted yearly ever since. The study focuses on large brands across a variety of sectors and interviews over 50 000 stakeholders every year. In combination with consumer research, we conduct in-depth desk research on the biggest trends and developments within sustainability. In 2019, we additionally carried out a short expert survey in light of Sustainable Brand Index. The aim was to get a better understanding of the sustainability issues that will gain increased focus in the coming years, and that thus will effect sustainable brand building. We identified 34 experts across the Nordics and the Netherlands who work professionally with sustainability on a daily basis. Half of these experts works in bigger corporations, and the other half works at organisations, think thanks, and political institutions. The data was collected through a shorter quantitative web survey. The field work was conducted in April 2019 and 25 experts answered the survey. Discover more here.

Download SB Insight’s report in the Nordic Market For Circular Economy here for free.