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Seven sustainability/CSR trends for 2014, and some personal plans

Big year for companies and forests ahead

This year I won’t offer my own summary of 2013, given what we published on and in the print edition, did the job rather well. You can read it here.

In a general business sense you can also read the 2014 preview here.

Here’s a few quick trends that I think we’ll see more of in 2014, with regard to business, sustainability, campaign groups and regulation/enforcement:

1) More of us will grasp the importance of institutions

The ongoing governance crisis in Bangladesh, and its sad results, notably highlighted by the NYTimes, is demonstrating how important institutions are in making sure pollution is minimised and people stay safe, amongst other key roles. 2014 will be another year in which the importance of institutions is increasingly understood by companies, consumers and governments themselves. More on this here.

2) Regulation will continue to play a key, and growing role

As John Ruggie has often noted effective global regulation, if even possible, would take hundreds of years to get agreement on, without even considering enforcement. So in the last decade, we’ve seen more and more OECD countries, and some others, increase corporate responsibility related regulation. Whilst enforcement is still patchy, and much of it is ‘name and shame’ more than ‘name and fine significantly/put executives in jail’ the trend is only going one way. Look at China’s experiments with carbon trading and environmental regulation/enforcement. The question of course is what does smart regulation and enforcement look like, I guarantee more debate about this in 2014.

3) We’ll realise, more, that systems, not consumers, are the answer 

I predict 2014 will be the year when more and more chief executives admit to themselves that the consumer behaviour change (I mean significant lasting change) idea is a canard that must be disregarded in favour of sectoral collaboration to set better standards. The lack of evidence that we can shop our way out of trouble will become more salient. The lazy pronouncements that “all we need to do is communicate with our consumers more effectively” will ring more and more hollow. This is a good thing, as when this happens we can focus on practical, realistic solutions, like these. More on all this here.

4) Campaigners will become more vocal and agressive, in some cases 

Greenpeace is head and shoulders ahead of the other big so called campaign groups in effecting corporate change.This lead won’t be hugely eroded in 2014. This is partly for structural reasons but also due to the momentum they have been generating in recent years. Other effective groups, such as Global Witness and the Rainforest Action Network, do great, but more focused work. There’s been a slow shift away from endless ‘dialogue’ towards more action, in groups such as the Sierra Club in the US, and other big green NGOs. This trend will continue around the world, and small, vocal and local campaign groups such as China Labor Watch will have a bigger impact as more companies take an interest in better managing supply chains and gaining some transparency.

5) Practical solutions, particularly in emerging markets, will be key

What do I mean by this? I suppose I am suggesting that some of the woolly thinking in the sustainability/CSR world may drop away in favour of niche, specific solutions that solve problems which can be solved. This is a trend that’s been happening for some time, slowly. I expect it to accelerate in 2014. These solutions can often make the most difference, fastest, in emerging markets. Think drip irrigation, or community solar, or community-based human rights governance. The desire to be more practical, more niche and to have a measurable impact when spending company money is an inexorable trend. 

6) More companies and management will grasp the importance of basic sustainability thinking

I’ve noticed two simple trends in the last couple of years both of which will continue in 2014:

a) More and more companies are investing some resources in sustainability. I see this at Ethical Corporation conferences particularly, but also all over the world when I travel to speak, train, learn and discuss the issues.
b) Many of those companies are quickly devolving responsibility to operational roles, rather than just having a communications focused nominal head of sustainability or corporate responsibility. They are learning from how other companies have done this, faster. This trend will continue.

7) The leaders will continue to accelerate, and share

I’ve been worried for several years that the performance gap between the companies that ‘get it’ on corporate responsibility and sustainability and those which do not, is widening to a frightening degree. I’m less concerned about this now, given that more companies are opening up, sharing IP and knowledge, and understanding that as a leader, you have to take the sector with you, not just driving change in one company. This sharing trend via industry groups (here’s one example) which are becoming more focused and are under (helpful) pressure to deliver will accelerate in 2014, and beyond.

Aside from the brief trend analysis above, specifically here’s a few of the things I plan to do during 2014.

I’m teaching my Master’s class at Birkbeck, University of London again from January 9th until March. Birkbeck now offers an MSc in Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability. More on that here. (Whether Universities and Management Schools should be doing this rather than focusing on integration is another debate!) Any reader interested in coming to talk to my students, just let me know. Guest speakers are welcome.

In mid-January I’ll be in Barcelona, Spain for a day or two, doing some training work with a large companies on CSR. Any readers there who might like to meet up for a coffee, let me know. I’ll be there on the 15th/16th.

At the end of January I’ll be in Indonesia for a week looking at how large companies can stop deforestation in their supply chains. Looks like I’ll be heading deep into some remaining forest. I’ll report back on that in due course!

In April I’ll be in Accra, Ghana (5-10) teaching on this executive education programme with my good friend and highly respected colleague Wayne Dunn.

Later in April I’ll be in Shanghai, China for a week or so, and hope to meet some blog readers there.

I’ll also be in Stockholm, Sweden in early September for a speech at a company management conference. Again any blog readers who’d like to meet up, let me know. Always interested to find out more about what’s happening there. Here’s a fascinating primer on the region.

I’ll also be continuing my work with Mallen Baker on our online training course series. As of February this year, more than 130 executives will have been trained on our online system/courses. See more about that here. I/we also offer customised online training modules, designed on demand, and also face to face training for groups of managers.

On the Ethical Corporation front, the main focus will be the Responsible Business Summit in London on May 19-20. We’re trying to take it up a level this year, with senior leaders not making speeches, but being quizzed on their progress and challenges and then using the audience to help solve problems they face. More about that event here.

There’s a couple of other projects I’m also working on, more about those soon. Meanwhile, Happy New Year to all readers for 2014, and I hope to meet many of you in the coming year.