CSR and Sustainability

2019 sustainable business highlights, and what does 2020 hold?

(Almost) Happy New Year to all readers. Below are some of the most read / listened to articles and podcast from Innovation Forum during 2019. These are my 2019 highlights, voiced through others. Then there’s a list of our planned 2020 events (so far) at the end.

First up though, some off-the-cuff predictions from me, for sustainable business in 2020.

  • Politics: For “Anglo-Saxon” politics in 2020 will be tumultuous to say the least. Trump. Brexit, these are well-trodden areas. For sustainability, it’s a big year. If Trump wins, we get four more years of nihilism and beggar-thy-neighbour policies and unfilled roles in the US administration.If he loses, climate change policy in 2021 and beyond will get a serious boost. For the UK, unfortunately UK Conservatives look set on a hard brexit, unless they comply with the EU’s rules, which seems unlikely. This will have a significant impact on the UK economy if this happens.Both US change (or worsening of the political/climate stance) and UK chaos look set to happen towards the end of 2020, so expect a lot of meaningless noise in the first 6-10 months of 2020 on green-related policy, and not much impetus behind social issues in supply chains or elsewhere too.

    Check back in 12 months for a better sign of what may happen in 2021-2025 from the UK and US governments. Davos 2021 may be a lot more interesting for business contributions to progressive policy in Anglo-Saxon politics than Davos 2020.

    In other areas, we hear that China’s renewables boom is under serious threat, and of course their march towards dictatorship is no help to the furthering of human rights. The EU, disjointed yet unified around Brexit (yes even Hungary and Poland know where their real interests lie) will continue to push hard on plastics policies, circular approaches, climate change and areas such as mandatory due diligence on issues such as human rights and supply chain transparency. It’s too early to say much more about the new Commission.

  • People: One bright spot is the increasing focus on inclusivity and how quickly that is accelerating. From workplace justice to the end of “manels” and “mansplaining” at conferences. Expect lots more progress in 2020.Business is fully on board with workplace rights. The question is, of course, how far that extends down the supply chain. Billionaires and CEOs will continue to wring their hands about inequality in 2020, but given the solutions are structural and political, many still have no clue what to do about it, outside their own organisations or immediate spheres of influence.
  • Technology: AI, robotics, automation et. al. are much discussed. Their impact will be cumulative over time, and the governance discussion will be ongoing. Where technology in 2020 will be vital for business is in those magical cliches of “transparency” and “traceability”.In the areas where I work, progress, rollout and cost reductions are accelerating so fast it’s hard to keep up. One senior chocolate executive told me a month or so ago that his firm can now see child labourers in fields almost “live’ and take action about it.Scepticism aside, tracking technology and farming enabling technology will be one of the key themes of 2020, no doubt about it. Big brands, and those who supply them, and who work deep in the supply chain, will begin making needed tech investments that will be game changing in the coming years. But as noted in a recent article I co-authored, technology ain’t nothing without policy, and reform.
  • Climate change: Madrid 2019 was a damp squib, with arguments about mitigation damning the summit to history, but the broad objectives of the Paris Agreement continue, and politics in 12 months time will be a key factor. Meantime public awareness about the “climate crisis” continue to rise. From Thunberg to Attenborough, media sees opportunity for clicks in climate, and that is helping.Expect 2020 to see a big rise in direct activism from campaigners and others. Some of it will be dumb and lacking tactics or strategy, but much will be well targeted and effective.Business now cannot escape leading, and talking about it, and not before time.
  • Supply chain: As above, technology plays a key role and will do so more than ever in 2020. The big challenges is to avoid the “and so what?” factor of being highly informed about supply chain challenges but unable to do much about them.Like a modern war, you can do a lot with smart weapons, but eventually, you need ‘boots on the ground’ to get things done. In the supply chain context, what this means is that no matter how good the aerial photography is, it is only by engaging with governments and communities on the ground that anything meaningful can be achieved.This can be due to lack of buy in and resources or lack of influence in supply chains. This is where the power of progressive business groups can, will, and must make a bigger difference in 2020.

    Groups like the Business Roundtable are setting a better tone in the US, investor groups are jumping on board (just check out the FT’s coverage in 2019) and progressive thinkers like those at the Consumer Goods Forum are doing more and more practical work, which makes a big difference to sourcing policies and practices.

    Expect more on all this, a lot more, in 2020. If nothing else, the new generation of consumers clearly expects both policy and action from business. Supply chain is where promises hit reality.

  • The corporate agenda: Everything above means that the corporate sector is going to have to play a much-increased role in addressing the entire raft of sustainability issues. Don’t get me wrong – over the past couple of decades, companies taken huge strides on these issues. But 2020 will be the year when the corporate sector is going to have to go even further, for a number of reasons.Firstly, the international donor sector is not what is once was. The shift to the right in both the UK and the US means that two of the world’s main development agencies – USAID and DFID – are increasingly vehicles of their home countries’ foreign policy. Key development issues will therefore garner less attention from governments led by the likes of Trump and Johnson.

    Secondly, companies are increasingly seeing the short-comings of their strategies to-date on addressing sustainability issues. The second half of 2019 saw a number of well-assessed critiques of supply chain standards, central to all of which was the observation that the challenges in supplier countries are not commodity-specific.

    As our recent ‘Landscapes’ conference demonstrated, companies are need to take a more holistic approach if real progress is to be made. The jury is out on how this is to be achieved, but 2020 will be the year in which companies need to start thinking about this seriously, and trying out new approaches.

    (With thanks to Dr Peter Stanbury-Davis for contribution to the above)

Some of 2019’s most-downloaded podcast interviews and most-read analysis
(You can also see these online here)

Bayer on how to ensure all agricultural land is used wisely
Stephan Brunner, global key relation manager at Bayer Crop Science, speaks about some of the company’s business partnerships that are helping to drive strategy and impact.

Bunge on why future palm oil supply chains should focus on value not just price
Ben Vreeburg, director, sustainability, at Bunge Loders Croklaan, discusses transparency challenges in palm oil supply chains – particularly when moving from the mill to the farm level.

How Nestlé links social and environmental supply chain goals
Anna Turrell, head of sustainability for UK and Ireland at Nestlé, outlines the challenges in tackling modern slavery issues, and why the business’s first step was to align, as far as possible, with the UN guiding principles on business and human rights.

Danone on why agriculture must shift to being regenerative, not just sustainable
Mariano Lozano, CEO of Danone North America, discusses what’s necessary to make the business case for real change in agriculture practices.

The truth about the Amazon fires
Niels Wielaard, co-founder and CEO of Satelligence, explains how satellite data was used to track the Amazon fires over the summer, and analysing the vegetation types that have been burning.

Why local capacity building could solve the Spice Girls’ problem
Everyone agrees that auditing processes are unsatisfactory. A combination of on-the-ground empowerment and a rethink of how auditors are paid could help.

Are there really any alternatives to palm oil?
Palm oil’s association with deforestation has led some brands and retailers to eliminate it from supply chains. But it this viable at scale? And are there unintended impact consequences?

The continuing complexities of what to do about plastic
While there are some innovation alternatives to plastics appearing, there remains a lack of proper analysis of their impact and potential.

Only farmers can change farming
There’s no substitute to working closely with farmers on-the-ground for real and effective transformation in agriculture.

Is sustainability innovation the route to saving capitalism?
Despite the urgency, business still lacks clear focus on how to inspire the innovation that leads to long term sustainability.

2020 spring conference series – dates for your diary

The ethical trade and human rights forum
18th-19th March 2020, London
This two-day business forum will assess how companies can develop and implement robust human rights policies. Join experts from L’Oréal, MondelēzInternational, the BodyShop, Total, Ikea, Fifa, ABInbev, ABN Amro and many more. Sign up here!

Sustainable apparel and textiles conference
28th-29th April 2020, Amsterdam
Learn how brands can transform factories, engage consumers, drive circularity and reduce climate impacts across fashion and textile supply chains. Among attendees include: HugoBoss, C&A, Eileen Fisher, Sustainable ApparelCoalition, PVH Europe, VFCorporation and Lenzing. Click here for full registration details.

The ethical trade and human rights forum
New York, 5th-6th May 2020
This two-day conference will explore the legislative landscape around business and human rights, and identify areas of risk and opportunity. Panellists include Hilton, IBM, CocaCola, PepsiCo and many more. Click here to register for conference passes.

The Future of Food, USA
Minneapolis, 27th-28th May 2020
This two-day business conference will assess how business can react to consumer trends and expectations, whilst building sustainable, resilient agricultural supply chains. Experts from General Mills, Yum! Brands, Walmart and Sodexo already confirmed. Click here for best-priced conference passes.

The Future of Food, Europe
London, 2nd-3rd June 2020
This two-day business conference will identify the main areas of opportunity and innovation within the food and beverage industry.Join Unilever, Nestlé, SimeDarby, Ikea, Oxfam and Tiger Brands. Click here to register.

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