Get a glimpse into the future of business with Susan McPherson’s 2020 corporate responsibility predictions from the pros.
Looking back at the last decade, perhaps no CSR-related story received as much media attention as this year’s statement from the Business Roundtable, in which 181 CEOs declared that creating shareholder value is no longer the sole purpose of a corporation. Far from being revolutionary (in fact, many of the CEOs have yet to practice what they preach—just look at the massive gap between executive and average worker salaries), the statement instead summarizes a shift that’s been unfolding over the last 10 to 15 years, as more and more companies embrace impact as a core tenant of business. As we see income inequality surge, climate challenges intensify, reproductive rights at risk, and xenophobia proliferate, we know there is still a long way to go—but optimistically speaking, real potential for companies to help prepare us for a sustainable and equitable future.
The decisive decade
What we’re seeing and hearing from experts is that 2020 has the potential to be—as Aron Cramer puts it—the “decisive decade, when business—working with government, civil society and other partners—will help determine whether the Sustainable Development Goals and the vision of the Paris Agreement will be achieved.” Cramer, CEO and President of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), explains, “This is a time for increased urgency and deep collaboration for systemic change.”
The questions for the sustainable business community to address are bigger than ever.
“Business needs to address the deep discomfort many of our fellow citizens have about how the market economy works. Business leaders also need to raise their voice to ensure that we preserve open societies, deep respect for diversity, and the avoidance of xenophobia. My hope is that business will rise to the occasion. My fear is that political polarization will provoke too much caution.”
Our times call for ambition, not caution, and business advocacy, not risk aversion.
The start of a new decade also brings a natural opportunity for companies to revisit sustainability goals and make bolder commitments. “As many companies reach their 2020 public goals, we will see a new set of commitments on their priorities and ambitions for the next decade. For example, at Intel we are planning to release our 2030 goals next year,” says Suzanne Fallender, Director of Corporate Responsibility at Intel. 2020 is significant for another reason, as Jeannette Astorga, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at the Ascena Retail Group, points out, “In 2020, we will be 10 years away from achieving the commitments established by the UN for Sustainable Development which will ideally prompt a renewed sense of urgency for action.”
Getting political to save our climate
As climate challenges grow ever more urgent, young people are at the forefront of a cultural movement to ensure we take action before it’s too late. [Read predictions from four climate activists from the GlobalGiving community.] Companies will follow their lead. Author and consultant Andrew Winston explains, “Companies should be increasingly focused on purpose and their role in society, feeling more pressure from employees and the young people of the world to take a stand on issues—especially climate change. Given the quasi-failure of the global climate negotiations, the responsibility to keep carbon reductions moving will fall to business even more. Of course 2020 will also bring in a critical election in the U.S. It’s hard to tackle climate change globally without the U.S. as a willing participant, and we have deniers in charge. It’s also hard to move on climate, inequality, and other priorities without a functioning democracy with respect for the rule of law. Companies will likely be stepping more into politics—at least on climate policy—than ever before. And the rush to clean tech, renewable energy, electric vehicles, and more will continue to surprise.”
With the stakes heightened, climate action will also be at the core of companies’ internal corporate social responsibility strategies. According to Suzanne DiBianca, Executive Vice President of Corporate Relations and Chief Impact Officer at Salesforce, “2020 will be the year of climate optimism. Pressure is building on businesses to adapt their supply chains to address carbon emission goals, manufacture with sustainable products, or ensure fair labor practices. As a result, climate action will be built into the core of how businesses operate. And innovative technologies like blockchain and AI will enable transparency and predictive intelligence into more sustainable practices.”
Applying technology products and skills to address global challenges
Intel’s Fallender agrees that companies will leverage their technology to drive progress on climate change—and beyond, “As we continue to move toward a more data-centric world, I expect we will see more robust discussions regarding product responsibility and the role of technology in society—including increased expectations for companies to demonstrate how their products and technologies are meaningfully addressing global challenges like climate change.”
Jeff Senne, Responsible Business Leader at PwC, echoes this sentiment, and explains how technology skills will also play an important role, “I expect to see businesses harness the power of technology to transform how we activate CSR strategies, find and create more efficiencies throughout operations, and engage our people in new and different ways that allow for flexible giving and volunteering that matches the pace of our lives. Alongside technology, digital upskilling is increasingly becoming a business imperative and a means of helping to advance one’s personal purpose. As such, we’ll see more businesses providing opportunities for their people to upskill and develop innovative tech solutions for pressing global challenges like climate change.”
New sectors in the sustainability spotlight
“2019 was the year that the food sector truly started its great sustainability disruption,” observes consultant Mike Barry, former Sustainability Director at Marks & Spencer. “From plant-based diet to re-imaging plastic, sustainability issues have become an existential boardroom discussion just as they have in the power and mobility sectors.”
It’s not just the food industry. Barry explains, “It was also the year that the fashion sector began to wake up to the enormity of its challenge and got a sketchy sense of the transformative solutions it needs to adopt, from resale platforms to new raw materials.”
Amy Hall, Vice President of Social Consciousness at EILEEN FISHER, believes 2020 will be a “pivotal year for the fashion industry.” She explains, “Recognizing our impact on the planet’s most pressing environmental crises, we will finally take meaningful, collective action on issues like plastic, carbon and loss of biodiversity.”
Our children, grandchildren, and the remaining species on earth are depending on us.
Other sectors to keep an eye on? Tourism, says Barry: “2020 will see tourism become the next sector to face a rude awakening, from short-haul air travel and cruise liner pollution to over-touristed cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam to food waste and single-use plastic.”
Diversity, equity, and inclusion: from awareness to systems change
In the latter part of the decade, we saw companies deepen their focus on equity and inclusion. At this point, the “business case” for diversity is table stakes; now it’s time for action. Daisy Auger-Domínguez, human capital executive and workplace culture strategist, says: “We’ve made improvements on diagnosing the problem, from #MeToo and headlines about pay equity and the fall of toxic CEOS, to thoughtful content and research about diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI), and belonging. In 2020, it’s time to turn from awareness to substantive, systemic change. In 2020, our attention can’t be diverted.” Part of this requires thinking beyond HR: “Companies must position DEI solutions in a place of organizational power, with authority and influence over more than just HR policies and practices.”
Less rhetoric, more action
Across the board, this move from rhetoric and awareness to action and solutions will be a key theme to watch out for in the next decade. Dave Stangis, former corporate responsibility executive at Campbell Soup Company, shares what he’s seeing on this front, “The conversation about ESG will continue to heat up with voices on both sides, but the important action is happening between the rhetoric at the poles. Data and assessment is getting better, boards are having discussions, and companies are driving more discipline and strategy into their operations to reduce risk and build long-term shareowner and societal value.”
As I look to 2020 (and beyond), I remain optimistic. More than ever, employees and customers are demanding that companies fight for our collective values and resources.
And most companies aren’t shying away from this new reality, as we saw from the Don’t Ban Equality Campaign for reproductive healthcare, Walmart’s response to the El Paso mass shooting, Dick’s Sporting Goods’ destruction of its assault rifle inventory, the ousting of toxic leadership at WeWork, and so many more. What remains to be seen is whether and to what extent corporate activism will translate to real, long-term change. I believe it can, but know that it will require ongoing investment and increasingly bold action—not just bold rhetoric—from business leaders, shareholders, boards of directors, employees, and the purchasing public.
This article was originally published in Forbes. Enjoy this article? To get more great content from Susan McPherson, follow @susanmcp1 on Twitter or subscribe to the McPherson Memo.
Featured Photo: Restore eyesight to 20,000 villagers by RestoringVision.org