Sustainability’s Transformative Journey and How It Will Look in the Future

Sustainability in the 2020’s will be notably improved compared to the previous decade, where much of the time and energy was spent convincing people that climate change actually existed in the first place. 

To that end, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were enacted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. They have given everyone a clear blueprint for success, as long as businesses are able to follow through with their commitments. 

The latter half of the decade saw a number of pledges made, with 17 interconnected goals and 169 SDG targets set for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Every country in the world has agreed to work towards achieving these goals.

We’ve prepared a timeline showing sustainability’s transformative journey since the early 2010’s, as well as looking ahead to 2030, when businesses are expected to have perfected the process of operationalizing their new procedures to meet SDG guidelines.

Will they be able to meet their pledges, which are becoming ever more important in a business world which increasingly values sustainability?

The 17 Goals for Sustainable Development

In case you’re unsure, here’s a rundown of the 17 SDGs declared by the UN:

1: No Poverty 

2: Zero Hunger 

3: Good Health and Well-being

4: Quality Education 

5: Gender Equality 

6: Clean Water and Sanitation 

7: Affordable and Clean Energy 

8: Decent Work and Economic Growth 

9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure 

10: Reduced Inequality 

11: Sustainable Cities and Communities 

12: Responsible Consumption and Production 

13: Climate Action 

14: Life Below Water 

15: Life on Land 

16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions 

17: Partnerships to Achieve the Goal

Most are reasonably self-explanatory, aiming to improve the plight of the average human with steps that can easily be measured as we inch closer to 2030.

A Timeline of Sustainable Development 

In 1987, the publication of the Brundtland Report helped to introduce the concept of sustainable development and discussed how it could potentially be achieved. They posited that it was; “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The report led to the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development in 1992, where they began to advocate for everything from avoiding ozone depletion and global warming to the dangers of overpopulation.

Consumer attitudes began to change rapidly in the 2010’s, as the planet started to comprehend that resources are finite. Practices were slowly legitimized with SDGs that were set up midway through the decade, and they were agreed to by all UN countries. 

Businesses were forced to adapt to the changing landscape, with companies like Starbucks aiming to provide “coffee sustainability, greener retail and community engagement.” 

AT&T started their “It Can Wait” campaign, asking users to keep their eyes on the road, instead of on their phone.” The conglomerate is hoping to make a dent in SDG 3, Target 6: “By 2020, halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents.”

In the here and now, the 2020’s are when future goals should start being met, although it’ll be difficult to ensure measurable change without continued pressure from consumers and governments, as well as transparent reporting. 

If all goes to plan, we will see changes being enacted and felt across the board midway through the decade, while society will need to ensure that businesses are living up to their word in the meantime.

Sustainability in the 2020’s 

Sustainability is thought of as a buzzword, but the concept is slowly revolutionizing nearly every industry and business. The problem is, it’s all well and good to say you’re going to make changes, but it could be an expensive process to enact in reality. 

Some industries are better placed, depending on their values, and whether they’re able to cut costs and pursue opportunities in new markets. For example, energy companies will be able to invest in green alternatives, banking on sustainability being able to add value and growth. 

Research by McKinsey found that 57% of respondents said that their companies have integrated sustainability into strategic planning, while the “most integrated area is mission and values, followed by external communications.” The least integrated aspects were supply chain management and budgeting.

Financial factors are important, but most business owners understand that they should be able to align their products and services to fit with the best interests of the planet and the people residing on it. Instead of looking solely at cost reduction, businesses are now more interested in innovation, using it as a strategy to turn a profit while doing their share of the work.

In terms of lip service, everyone from Coca-Cola to McDonald’s appear to be on board, while the latter’s Vice President of Global Sustainability Keith Kenny is ready to:

“Welcome and fully support the SDGs as a roadmap for our Scale for Good journey to ensure we make a positive difference to some of the most pressing social and environmental challenges in the world today.”

Only two decades ago you would have probably been laughed at for thinking McDonald’s would ever have a Vice President of Global Sustainability in the first place, highlighting the positive steps taken by large companies to think of future generations in the here and now. 

The Future of Sustainability

Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) is a global non-profit organization that has worked “to build a just and sustainable world” over the last 25 years. In terms of the future of sustainability, they note:

“The starting point for these topics is the need to face head on the three systemic changes affecting business: climate change, technological innovation, and the structural economic change. These conditions create three big issue sets that we believe need to be front and center on the business agenda—not only for sustainability reasons, but because these questions will be increasingly central to business performance.”

For now, it’s still unclear whether businesses will be able to keep up with the increased demand for sustainability, but the future looks better than it did just a decade ago. After all, it's likely that sustainable business practices will continue to be more important to overall performance, and early adopters will be one step ahead of the competition if they prepare properly.

Measurable change is the most important aspect. In terms of measuring progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN released an SDG Tracker in June 2018, which has up-to-date information about the latest developments as efforts ramp up in time for a sharp deadline in 2030.

In the future, sustainable businesses are likely to focus more on traceability and transparency in their supply chains, and they’ll have to do so throughout all tiers in their respective networks. The recent COVID-19 crisis has caused notable disruption to supply chains, but it could also be an opportunity to accelerate sustainable business efforts to be better placed in the future.

As always, the business world is changing to shape the needs of the modern world, as they work on integrating sustainability principles into their procedures. Regulatory requirements will also have to be analysed, otherwise there’s little chance of real change. 

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