History moved fast in 2011 just as the economy was stuck in neutral, and 2012 promises to be a wild ride. Exactly how it will play out is hard to say but 2011 provides ample evidence of how difficult it is to foresee changes. Last New Year’s Day, few foresaw the Arab Spring, and yet Hosni Mubarak didn’t make it to the end of February. And early in the year, any mention of the “Occupy Movement” was more likely to be considered a good name for a new indie rock band than one of the most potent political forces seen in years.
We do know that 2012 will bring the Rio+20 conference, the US presidential election, a leadership transfer in China, and the 25th anniversary of the Brundtland Commission’s report, all of which have great significance for sustainability. Beyond those events, several fundamental changes are reshaping our world – and sustainable business – in ways that are more profound than the events captured in the daily swirl of headlines and 140 character messages:
• Chronic economic weakness will lead to a redefinition of sustainability. The question of economic fairness will continue to redefine questions about sustainability. Indeed, it may mean that more mindshare is given to “responsible business”, as questions of economic equity between high and low earners, and between generations, gets more heated. Companies that understand the public mood by embracing transparency and collaboration will be best placed to navigate these choppy waters. Companies that find ways to achieve and demonstrate progress toward big sustainability goals will have the first claim on public trust that is in such short supply.
• Faith in government to provide answers will continue to fall. The Rio+20 summit is highly unlikely to deliver a template for sustainable economic development. Combined with economic and political gridlock in Brussels and Washington, another failed summit will reinforce the sense that public governance is not up to the task of addressing our most pressing problems. The imperative will be for companies to work with other businesses and civil society organisations to find broad-based solutions to sustainability challenges. Indeed, it is likely that companies and NGOs will state the clearest vision at Rio, and this will provide a useful antidote to political wrangling among states that haven’t figured out global governance in the multipolar world.
• Sustainable consumption will move from abstract idea to practical solution. As I said when opening the BSR Conference 2011, in a weak economy, sustainable consumption becomes much more relevant. In 2012, companies should declare war on waste, working internally and with consumers to reduce the massive amounts of energy and food that is wasted in the “developed” economies.
• Technology will ride to the rescue (well, sort of). Faith in technology can easily bleed into science fiction. But in 2012, the “internet of things”, the “quantified self”, and “augmented reality” will ensure that we have the information we need to achieve massive reductions of our footprint as individuals and institutions. And increased visibility into the sustainability attributes of everyday products will benefit companies that take this seriously, and leave others behind.
• The NGO world will face huge uncertainty and opportunity. The changes roiling the business world also impact the world’s biggest NGOs. Social media can both empower them and render them superfluous. Neither the Arab Spring nor the Occupy Movement sprung from pre-existing institutions. If 2011 was the year social movements crowdsourced NGOs right off the stage, 2012 may be the year they amplify their influence through the organising power of social media.
Of course 2012 may be remembered as the year when the markets collapsed, or when, somehow, the world’s governments acted in concert to combat climate change. But regardless, the underlying changes in technology, social contracts, and natural resource constraints to global growth will be with us well beyond 2012. And companies that build their strategies around these changes will be the most resilient – a word that is, after all, a synonym for sustainability.
Aron Cramer is president and CEO of BSR, a business network and consultancy focused on sustainability. He is also co-author of the book Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast-Changing World.