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Monday, January 8, 2018

Top 2017 Stories on Sustainability/Final

8. Companies went to court.
This year large companies dove into legal battles on social hot-button issues to an unusual degree. Tech companies big and small filed an “amicus brief” to fight the president’s first executive order on immigration (biotech firms spoke out as well). Fifty big companies asked a New York federal appeals court to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation. Companies also lobbied for pro-environmental and social policies. Companies went local as well, with seven big guns — Procter & Gamble, Walmart, Unilever, General Mills, Target, General Motors, and Nestle — pushing the state of Missouri to pass a bill to make it easier for them to buy renewable energy.
9. The super bowl of sustainability advertising was… the actual Super Bowl.
A surprising number of big brands used the most expensive, most viewed advertising time in the world to do something different this year: Instead of pitching products the old-fashioned way, focusing on how great it tastes or will make you feel, they chose to say something about an important aspect of social sustainability. And they took risky stands, in often not-so-veiled ways, against the policies of the new U.S. president.
Budweiser’s ad told the story of their founder and proudly pointed out his immigrant status. Little-known 84 Lumber went viral with a five-minute video about the journey of a family from central America. Coca-Cola focused on diversity and inclusion with its multi-lingual ad. And Audi’s ad “Daughter” lamented the lack of pay equity for women (though Audi then took heat for its own record on pay and women in leadership, showing that sustainability-focused ads can be risky).
10. Unilever fights off a hostile takeover bid.
Unilever is the consensus corporate leader on managing sustainability for business and societal value. That’s why I consider the attempted takeover of Unilever by Kraft Heinz and 3G Capital an important sustainability story.
It is unlikely that a firm like 3G would continue supporting the sustainability strategy at the heart of Unilever, even though the strategy has been wildly successful (the company’s market cap was at an all-time high — and then went up another 20% after the takeover attempt). As Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman told the Financial Times, it was “clearly a clash between a long-term, sustainable business model for multiple stakeholders and a model that is entirely focused on shareholder primacy.” Everyone interested in seeing companies lead the charge to a thriving world breathed a sigh of relief. (Full disclosure: I’ve been an advisor to Unilever North America, but I had zero involvement on this issue.)
So what’s next?
It’s risky to say anything definitive about the future. But I do believe that some mega-trends have too much inertia for any one stakeholder to completely disrupt. So some light predictions for 2018:
  • The climate will continue to get more volatile. Any remaining business leaders who don’t understand climate as a systemic risk and opportunity will have to get on board.
  • Millennials and Gen Z will continue to push for purpose and meaning in work and life.
  • AI, big data, blockchain, and other tech will change how we understand companies, products, and services, leading even more to embrace “clean labels” (like Walmart, Target, and Panera did this year).
  • To meet ever-rising expectations, and drive business value, companies will set more and more aggressive sustainability goals.
  • Clean tech will be under attack by the U.S. administration, but it will continue to prevail globally.
  • Finally, the #metoo movement against sexual harassment, which is sweeping through politics and media, will hit big business. We may see some senior Fortune 500 execs fall.

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