Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sustainability Trends for the Coming Years

I recently read an interesting piece on sustainability trends for the coming year:
http://www.environmentalleader.com/2012/01/17/four-sustainability-trends-to-watch-in-2012/.  The piece focuses on transparency, global consistency, public/private partnerships, the the rise of solar.  Each hold interesting impacts, assuming Mr. Probst is right.


Voluntary disclosure is a trend in sustainability that's been growing over the last three decades.  It started in the US with regulatory and quasi-regulatory programs like the Toxic Release Inventory data, 33/50, Project XL, and certainly with the rise of the various 3rd-party 'eco-sustainable-good guy-certification' schemes over the years.  (In full disclosure, I headed up one of these good guy schemes and recently departed to pursue an alternative way to make sustainable things happen in industries.)  These programs have been valuable, but they also may have a shelf-life eventually.

As more and more companies voluntarily disclose information and report this information in more and more standardized ways (see: Global Reporting Initiative, etc.), the watchdog, third-party roll becomes less and less clear.  Add into the mix a number of scandals, questions, and fraudulent behavior in the nonprofit world, and we may start to see the trust erode.  Another observation is consolidation of these rating and certification schemes (which has served as the de facto tools to create transparency in sectors).  It may be that transparency of business and government behavior will drive the expectation for more transparency with the very groups aiming to drive transparency itself.  "Who watches the watchers?" is the question that may unfold in the years to come.

Global Consistency

I think this is inevitable.  People want to be able to compare apples to other types of apples.  In sectors where there are multiple tools, schemes, and measures, I would think that one standardized tool will emerge, whether through collaboration, or by declaring one scheme or tool the "winner."  Again, if the push for increased transparency continues, this may be a moot point.

If there are sector "winners" in place, or as they emerge, I think we'll start to see some measure or interest in cross-industry standards like the ISO environmental management system standard, the sustainability standard, and the like.  I am a big fan of just "doing something" and acknowledging that the perfect is sometimes the enemy of the good (thanks Voltaire), but there will be an institutional push to standardize the ways we talk about, measure, and report on our sustainability progress.

Public/Private Partnerships

Andy Hoffman did great work in From Heresy to Dogma exploring the evolution of the environmental movement and tracking the roles and power positions that nonprofit, government, and business played over the past four decades.  The lead dogs (no pun intended) were business in the 1960s, the federal government in the 1970s and early 1980s (i.e., rise of the EPA), nonprofits in the 80s and 90s, and then finally a blended, power-struggle (nicely called partnering) among the three players from the mid-90s until now.  This sharing of power--over ideas, words, actions, results, leverage, and a whole host of things--among the three major types of institutions has continued and will continue to define the environmental movement (or sustainability movement more recently). However, with the creation of the new "for benefit" corporation in a number of states for business incorporation and the rise of social entrepreneurship in NGOs, the lines are getting blurred anyway.  (Check out this growing state-by-state legislation on B-Corps... it could define a new type of NGO: http://www.bcorporation.net.)


I like the sun, although my Scandinavia-UK-mutt skin does not.  That said, I have been wary of mass-produced solar kicking off in the near future.  The economic and institutional inertia by government and financial institutions alike are just not primed for big growth--not right now.  Yet, last year saw a 54% growth in solar worldwide and the US is showing expansion as well.  I still think energy efficiency upgrades, while not as sexy, will define the near future trend in energy in terms of big numbers.  The reality is that renewables, while happily growing, still account for a blip in energy production.  Let's take a look after the Presidential election and see where things stand.

More Trends to Consider...

Innovation:  Everyone will need to work a lot smarter.  In a previous article in this blog I wrote about working smarter, and some of the tools I plan on employing to do so.  The same is true for sustainability initiatives for communities, businesses, universities, and organizations of all kinds.  In a world of constrainted resources for action, but seemingly the same level of intention, innovation will be key.

Outsourcing Sustainability Services: As the potential recipient of these outsourced services (consultant hat on), I certainly would like to think this trend will happen.  And sincerely, I think it will.  The number of at-home employees has jumped the last decade, and so too has and will the concept of the corporation or organization itself.  Freelancer, is a title that will be held by more and more experts looking for work freedom and flexibility of content of work.  Likewise, the lower risk approach of hiring outside expertise for helping to meet the organizational mission makes perfect sense in today's climate.

Little Guys Get Into the Act: The first forty years of environmentalism in the United States has largely been defined by and directed towards large companies, large government programs, and big organizations.  Yet, small business in the US accounts for half of all environmental impacts and employs the vast majority of our workforce.  We are already seeing this trend as the service sectors and small to medium-sized businesses are starting to adopt the same ideas, plans, and action profiles as the Toyota's and GEs of the world.  (Read and learn more at: http://www.aboutcsbe.org.)  Small communities too... Portland and Boston won't be the only leaders on sustainable community efforts.  They just can't be.  Small communities, their people, policies, plans, and practices influence 80-plus% of the nation's landscape.  Land use in small and rural communities in the aggregate play a significant role in the nation's overall efforts to use resources more sustainably.

Off the Shelf Tools:  The number of off-the-shelf tools for communities, businesses, and others to plan, do, act, and review sustainability goals is growing and will continue to grow.  Looking at the landscape of these tools, I am blown away.  The time of "winging it" with your internal team is giving way to "buying sustainability" in the store and having your team (or your outsourcing partner) run your efforts with it.

The Word Sustainable Becomes Unsustainable:  There is a fatigue in some circles with the word "sustainable" itself.  Every consultant and author (looking for well-paid speaking gigs) is looking for the next great phrase to replace.  Resilient.  Post-carbon.  Resource Efficient.  I think we'll lose some people to the sustainability fatigue in the coming years, but words do matter.  So watching (and participating) in the definitional dilemma as it unfolds will actually be kind of fun, and important.

Interesting and challenging times we live in... that trend, I am certain, will not change.

Kevin A. Fletcher, Ph.D.
Founder, Greener Futures

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