Every year, I look for important themes in sustainability that will have lasting impact on society, from glaring evidence of global megatrends to inspiring stories of corporate action. The year 2018 brought extreme change — in weather and environmental ecosystems, in political winds and power, and in the expectations of business. It also brought incredible clarity about the scale of our challenges and opportunities.
So let’s start with the big picture before moving to some corporate success stories.
The world’s scientists sound a final alarm on climate
We have about 12 years left. That’s the clear message from a monumental study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To avoid some of the most devastating impacts of climate change, the world must slash carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and completely decarbonize by 2050 (while, in the meantime, emissions are still rising).
The IPCC looked at the difference between the world “only” warming two degrees Celsius (3.8°F) — the agreed upon goal at global climate summits in Copenhagen and Paris — or holding warming to just 1.5 degrees. Even the latter, they say, will require a monumental effort “unprecedented in terms of scale.” We face serious problems either way, but every half degree matters a great deal in human, planetary, and economic losses.
It wasn’t just the IPCC that told a stark story. Thirteen U.S. government agencies issued the U.S. National Climate Assessment, which concluded that climate change could knock at least 10% off of GDP. Other studies tell us that sea level rise is going to be worse than we thought, Antarctica is melting three times faster than a decade ago, and Greenland is losing ice quickly as well.
If both those ice sheets go, sea level rise could reach 200-plus feet, resulting in utter devastation, including the loss of the entire Atlantic seaboard (Boston, New York, D.C., etc.), all of Florida, London, Stockholm, Denmark, Paraguay, and land now inhabited by more than 1 billion Asians).
All of this suggests that business must dramatically change how it operates: companies will need to push well past their comfort zones from areas like politics and policy to engaging consumers to how they make investment decisions.
Entire towns are wiped off the map by extreme weather
This year the weather devastation around the world got, in the words of one colleague, “biblical.” The town of Paradise, California, was effectively eliminated by wildfires (that, yes, are made worse by climate change), killing at least 85 people. Most houses in Mexico Beach, Florida, were destroyed by Hurricane Michael.
Unprecedented rains and damage from Hurricane Florence slammed North Carolina and temporarily turned a major highway into a river. Typhoon Mangkhut ravaged the Philippines and parts of China, killing dozens of people. Incredible heat blanketed four continents this summer, with records falling across Europe and Asia. Venezuela’s last glacier is disappearing. Finally, Capetown, South Africa, is essentially out of water due in part to drought — the city nearly shut off all the taps this year, but has held off “Day Zero” through ongoing restrictions and aggressive citizen action.
The consequences of these extremes are not theoretical. What is the economic cost to an area with no water, or one that’s under water, or burned to the ground? In the U.S. alone, it was $306 billion in 2017, shattering records.
Coral is dying, insects are disappearing, and the fate of major ecosystems looks dim
The world’s top coral expert confirms that at 2 degrees of warming, all coral will die. This will destroy a critical part of an ocean system that provides protein to hundreds of millions of people, helps blunt coastal storm surges, and supports the livelihoods of people working in fishing and tourism.
And it’s not just coral: there’s the death of pacific kelp forests, radical declines in insect populations, and continuing population drops in all mammals and bees.
How does this all connect to business? For some sectors, it’s obvious: the food and agriculture industry will have trouble feeding us without pollinators, and tourism takes a big hit without coral and other wildlife. But more broadly, society will not thrive in a world where entire pillars of planetary support are collapsing. And if society can’t thrive, neither can business.
The U.S. environmental protection system continues being dismantled … from within
The EPA and Department of Interior are reversing years of protections for air, water, and land. In 2018, the Trump administration has opened up offshore waters and rolled back safety rules for drilling, greatly weakened the voice of science in policy, reduced focus on children’s health, and moved to make it easier to build dirty coal plants.
The big question now is whether businesses will push back and go down a cleaner path on their own. It’s easy to see why multinationals might as they face pressure from sub-national regions — California Gov. Jerry Brown held a Global Climate Action Summit which produced many aggressive climate goes from cities and state, for example. Gov. Brown also signed aggressive new laws committing to carbon-free electricity statewide by 2045 and requiring solar on all new homes. So even if U.S. action sputters, governors and mayors who influence local and regional business conditions will be pushing the clean economy and pro-climate agendas.
In pointed contrast to the U.S., the EU backed a proposal to strike no new trade deals with countries not in the Paris climate accord (i.e., only the U.S.), France will shut coal plants by 2021, India just cancelled plans for big coal plants, and China banned 500 inefficient models of cars.
A prominent leader retires, but new leaders step up
For nearly a decade, no business leader has done more to bring sustainability into the business mainstream than Paul Polman, Unilever’s outgoing CEO (Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Unilever). His depth of understanding of our biggest global, social, and environmental challenges, and his commitment to use business as a way to tackle them, has been unparalleled. But it wasn’t just talk. The company also grew throughout Polman’s tenure and the stock outperformed peers and the FTSE index. Luckily, there are other corporate leaders who are stepping up, including Danone’s Emmanuel Faber (see below for more).
But climate isn’t the only area where we’re seeing bold stances. Societal issues more broadly made headlines, too. The New York Times declared 2018 year that “CEO activism has become the new normal,” with prominent voices like Salesforce’s Marc Benioff leading the way. Other notable moments include Nike making Colin Kaepernick — the man who led NFL player protests about police violence against African Americans — the face of its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign (sales rose quickly).
Under pressure from survivors of school mass shootings, Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling assault weapons, and other companies cut ties to the powerful National Rifle Association. Kroger celebrated a year of its “End Hunger” initiative. Unilever threatened to pull its substantial ad dollars from Facebook and Google if they didn’t police “fake news and toxic content.” One hundred U.S. CEOs urged action on controversial immigration issues. And more than 100 U.S. companies gave employees time off to vote.
Danone becomes the world’s largest B Corporation
A “B Corp” certification requires answering an intensive set of questions on environmental, social, and governance issues. But most importantly, it commits a company to create value for all stakeholders (customers, employees, communities, and so on), not just shareholders.
French consumer products giant Danone has now put 30% of its brands and businesses through the certification process and says that “companies are fundamentally challenged as to whose interests they really serve.” Becoming a B Corp is arguably is a direct statement about whose interests it values most, and it’s and fascinating frontal attack on the dominance of shareholder capitalism.
More investors are viewing climate and sustainability as core value issues
Something is shifting in finance. Vanguard wants CEOs to be a force for good. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, said that “70% of [UK] banks, who normally have a shorter horizon, are viewing climate as a financial risk—not a CSR one.” Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset owner, encouraged longer-term thinking about environmental, social, and governance issues in a strongly-worded letter to large-company CEOs.
Anecdotally, I’ve talked to leaders at big banks who are now thinking differently about purpose and systemic risk. And in a quieter move, a major real estate investor in Miami began pulling money out of coastal assets to avoid risk of sea level rise. Watch this space.
The clean technology explosion continues and accelerates
Three big clean tech themes wowed me this year.
1) Renewables keep getting cheaper. According to Lazard’s annual analysis of the cost of building new power plants, renewables are now the cheapest. And another global analysis showed that new wind and solar are cheaper than one-third of the coal already on the grid — and will be cheaper than 96% of existing plants by 2030).
2) Corporate buying of clean energy keeps rising. By the end of just the first half of 2018, businesses bought more clean energy than they did in 2017. Companies like Owens Corning (disclosure: a client of mine) are buying enough green energy to pitch their products as cleanly manufactured (which they started doing in late 2017).
3) Electric vehicles are exploding, and it’s not just small vehicles: even container ships are going electric. UPS bought its first EV delivery vehicles at price parity to combustion engines, and China is adding nearly 10,000 electric buses to the roads — equal to the size of London’s entire bus fleet – every five weeks.
China rejects the world’s trash
For years, the U.S. had a great deal: When container ships arrived from China with goods, we sent them back filled with our recyclable paper and glass. But starting January 1, 2018, China stopped accepting our trash. The ripples of this move are unpredictable and still moving through the system, but in some regions, materials piled up and prices for recycled content plummeted. In a business world trying to go “circular” (i.e., find a use for everything and eliminate waste), it was a wake-up call about how much waste we still produce.
The battle against single-use plastic heats up, starting (somewhat oddly) with straws
Sometimes weird things hit a tipping point. For a combination of reasons, including a viral video showing a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, companies waged war on straws this year. Marriott, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, and the city of Seattle, among others, all banned or are phasing out straws. It was a very small part of a larger conversation about “single-use plastics,” most notably plastic bags, which IKEA and Taiwan are banning as well.
Raising the bar for suppliers
The greening of the supply chain is a perennial story, but there are some noteworthy recent actions. Apple created a $300 million fund to help suppliers in China build more solar, and also partnered with Alcoa and Rio Tinto to develop a better smelting process to make carbon-free aluminum. On the labor side of the supply chain equation, PepsiCo and Nestle cut ties with a palm oil supplier over human rights abuses and Coca-Cola said it would work with the U.S. State Department to use blockchain to fight forced labor.
Meatless options grow plentiful
Given the way most cattle is currently raised, one of the most effective things an individual can do to reduce her carbon footprint is eat less meat. The options to do so are growing, and the rise of products made from non-animal proteins has been remarkable. The Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat, and other brands have made believers out of skeptics (they taste great) and are, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “overrunning grocery meat cases.” In another fascinating move, tech company WeWork went meat-free in its offices and even stopped reimbursing employees on business trips for meat meals.
What comes next…
I’m sure I missed many stories, especially globally (my view is from the U.S.). Predictions are hard, but I’m safe in assuming 2019 will be a bumpy ride again. Ultimately, today’s global political situation is, at best, unpredictable. Brazil now has a strongman-style leader who talks about cutting down the Amazon, but the U.S. just swung its House of Representatives back the other way, giving power to Democrats who want more focus on climate change, inequality, and other sustainability agenda items. No matter what happens politically, it seems clear that companies will continue to feel pressure, internally and externally, to do more on social and environmental issues. While the problems we are extremely serious, I remain optimistic that companies will be doing more in 2019 than ever before.
By: Andrew Winston