For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.
“The catastrophization of the future freezes people.” If there was a common theme at the various sustainability conferences we attended this year it was an acknowledgment that collectively, the sustainability movement has failed at telling a compelling (read: positive) story of what a sustainable future looks like. This quote from Paul Hawken at the VERGE SF conference was followed by similar sentiments from Amory Lovins and Andy Revkin that we’ve had very little to show when deploying ‘sky is falling’ rhetoric. As Jo Confino of Guardian Sustainable Business summarized, “The greatest risk to the sustainability movement is that it is struggling, and so far failing, to articulate a vision of a future that is both prosperous while remaining within planetary boundaries.”
If 2013 marked a tipping point in recognizing that our rhetoric must change, it also saw signs of a counter-narrative, where some individuals, organizations and companies are creating the space for a positive conversation about the future to flourish. You can see it in sustainability pioneer Jonathan Porritt’s new book The World We Made, which reflects an optimistic vision of the world in 2050. You can see it in the grassroots 10:10 campaign #itshappening, encouraging people to share “signs of the shift to a low-carbon world.” You can see it with established sustainability leader Unilever launching Project Sunlight, an initiative to “make sustainable living desirable and achievable by inspiring people to look at the possibilities of a world where everyone lives well and within the natural limits of the planet.” And you can see it in the ‘Net Positive’/’Net Good’ platforms launched in and around 2013 from Kingfisher, BT, AT&T, and Dell. The ambition of the corporate examples reflects not only a shift in narrative, but the importance of demonstrating ‘absolute’, and increasingly ‘net positive’, progress if optimism is to be sustained.