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Our Insights 11 May 2011

Five Early Trends for 2011

By Mohammed Al-Shawaf

At the end of last year, my colleagues and I wrote, debated, and then re-wrote a blog on ten sustainability trends from 2010. Now that 2011 is underway, here are five trends we’re watching closely. We hope you’ll join the discussion and share your thoughts on the key issues appearing (and not appearing) on this list.

1. Have we reached the “tipping point” necessary to transform national energy policy? No, we’ve reached several.

Is it possible for this issue to be more center stage than it was four months ago? While we wrote last year of the topic’s ubiquity in the “headlines of major newspapers and magazines…[and as a] hot-button issue in legislative and campaign debates alike,” we saw its natural evolution to the kitchen table. Rising crude oil prices (the highest since the summer of 2008) and $4/gallon gas in most U.S. markets is just beginning to take a toll on consumers, businesses and the global economy. While the specter of soaring gas prices has garnered more attention, other forms of energy have had their own troubling turns in the spotlight. The tragedy of Japan’s triple disaster put nuclear energy on its heels, inspiring large anti-nuclear street protests in Tokyo, moratoriums in some European countries (Germany, Italy) and strident oppositions to moratoriums in others (France). And the great hope surrounding natural gas as the abundant, “cleaner” fossil fuel of the future? It too came down to earth when thousands of gallons of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) fluid spilled in a Pennsylvania well. This, following an investigative series in the New York Times the previous month, which uncovered widespread under-regulation of the fuel source. While these developments are significant and troubling in their own regard, their effects are magnified when put into the context of a U.S. national energy policy that is bold only in its complacency. As a recent, star-studded panel at the Fortune Green Brainstorm conference concluded, while the U.S. stalls, the rest of the world is moving ahead.

2. The global food agenda we need leaves everything on the menu.

Similar to the 2008 déjà vu now playing out over the rising price of crude oil, food prices actually surpassed their 2008 levels – when soaring prices inspired riots across the globe – this February, driving 44 million more people into extreme poverty, according to a World Bank estimate. Reckless speculation (which has led to vocal attacks on banks like Barclays and commodity traders such as Glencore over the last few weeks), higher fertilizer costs, unprecedented turmoil across the Middle East and sweeping natural disasters have all been cited as causes for our presently perilous position. While all (and more) are undoubtedly contributors, concentrating on the trees prevents us from seeing the forest. 400 scientists from 34 countries worked for two years on the Global Food and Farming Futures report, commissioned from the UK government’s think tank Foresight and released this January. It concluded that in order to ensure food security in a sustainable way, nothing less than a redesign of the whole food system is required, and the change is needed now. The complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges require all stakeholders to come together (no small task), but they also demand all solutions to be actively considered. Sustainable, pragmatic agriculture—neither fully industrial/conventional nor wholly organic—is gaining traction as high food prices and the twin sins of under and over-nutrition are juxtaposed with a future population of 9 billion people. The UN representative on the Right to Food presented a report this March which recommended that “agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just.” While that argument supports a shift in today’s global food system, it’s important to note that “many [of its] adherents rule out nothing, including in their recommendations even GMOs and chemical fertilizers where justifiable.” SustainAbility’s forthcoming research project, Appetite for Change, will explore the “menu” of solutions later this year.

3. In an age of uncertainty, the supply chain comes out of the shadows: Now what?

A Forbes blog last week highlighted a recent executive summit and poll on the sources of risk that most concerned them today: supplier failure, manufacturing disruption and rising fuel and energy costs were three of the top five. The Japanese disaster and the remarkable upheaval in the Middle East – two events that have exposed the vulnerabilities of our global supply chain this year—are but two of the “once-in-a-generation” occurrences that seem to be arriving ever-quicker, making it clear that are we now living in a radical state of uncertainty. Often couched in the language of risk, businesses’ path to supply chain resilience can in fact be bolstered by sustainability hallmarks like more localized supply chains where longer, deeper and more decentralized supplier relationships create valuable hedges in an environment of increased volatility. While companies should certainly not undo the positive benefits and progress that globalization has brought, managing supply chains in a “business as usual” fashion is becoming untenable. This last point is reinforced by the attention that supply disruptions and the ensuing manufacturing slowdowns have received among nontraditional audiences. More awareness (across a greater breadth of stakeholders) of the disparate parts and components that make up our favorite products should lead to greater demands for transparent supply-chain practices. Companies should expect that a “new normal” of transparency will lead to greater inquiries about the traceability of products, one aspect SustainAbility is exploring in its current research project on eco-certifications, Signed, Sealed…Delivered?

4. Great expectations: The Arab Spring and the shifting role of technology companies

The Arab Spring has placed the courage, will and collective power of the region’s protestors at the fore. Still, connective technologies (e.g. social media) have received their fair share of acclaim as well, helping enable a movement and the moment. I’ve watched with great interest at the shifting expectations of these “enablers” since the protests began in January. The technology sector, continually cited as the most progressive in advancing the sustainability agenda, has seen a splintering of that goodwill. Twitter and Google have bolstered their already-strong reputations for using their technology to advance individual freedom, circumventing government attempts to stop the flow of information when relevant and possible. Facebook has aided scores of organizers through the sheer ubiquity of its platform among youth, yet to the dismay of some lawmakers and activists, it remains opposed to allowing aliases that would better shield protestors from reprisals On the other end of the spectrum, Flickr and Vodafone (a hardware, not content provider) have seen their reputations take a hit because of their implicit support of the Egyptian autocracy (Vodafone) or an overly cautious and restrictive approach to allowing protestors use of its platform (Flickr). The early lesson in this still-fast moving landscape? To borrow Google’s mantra, “do no evil” is becoming the baseline expectation for tech companies. Increasingly, if you’re not with “the people” (and acting the part), you’re against them and will suffer the consequences.

5. Capitalism questioned

“Instead of the goal of maximum linear growth in GDP, we should be thinking of maximum wellbeing for minimal planetary input.” Could you guess who wrote that? Left-leaning academic? Activist? Actually, it was the CEO of a listed company (Kingfisher, the world’s third-largest home improvement retailer in the world) in an article titled “Imagining a new, sustainable capitalism.” At the end of last year, we asked aloud whether questioning growth was still “deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries.” The jury is (not surprisingly) still out, but recent entries into the “limits to growth” canon, including Paul Gilding’s “The Great Disruption, continue to push that conversation farther from the fringes. While there is shared acknowledgement among mainstream business types that capitalism in its current form requires serious attention, the prescriptions are still largely divergent. In a widely-discussed piece in February’s Harvard Business Review, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer argued (not for the first time) that “creating shared value” is the solution to a capitalist system “under siege,” and that a company should “enhance their competitiveness while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates.” Then, in April’s issue of HBR, Dominic Barton, Managing Director of McKinsey, wrote that business must jettison short-termism in favor of “long-term capitalism,” beginning a discussion in the McKinsey Quarterly where CEOs like Unilever’s Paul Polman have discussed their remedies for re-inventing capitalism. While these arguments still largely exist in the confines of a growth-driven economic system , the wide reach of these influencers among core business audiences is further evidence that this conversation needs a place at the table among all parties involved. One of those parties is the general public and even in the U.S., the percentage of Americans who believe that the free market economy is the best system has been on a steady decline since the turn of the millennium, according to an April 6 GlobeScan poll. Could a convergence of thought and action be closer than we think?

With thanks to contributions from the SustainAbility Team including: Chris Guenther, Frances Buckingham and Alicia Ayars.

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