Global reduction in productivity, the health challenges brought on by the pandemic and the plethora of economic setbacks suffered by various industries across the globe, 2020 was quite the year. Still, the silver lining might be that for the sustainability movement, last year may have been one of its most progressive yet. From reduction in emissions to reduced fashion consumption along with everything in between, various beneficial changes in sustainability practices happened that can’t be overlooked – and the planet surely appreciated.
Now as we enter a new year, it is reasonable to surmise that the challenges and progress made last year will form the backdrop for the trends we can expect in this one. The concept of sustainability is all-encompassing and touches on every industry and every aspect of our lives. Here are the top sustainable trends to look out for in 2021:
1. Working from home
A by-product of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, working from home became a necessity for many businesses that were keen to continue operating. While many workers may have been forced into it under less than pleasant circumstances, working remotely has in fact been shown to be good for the environment. The reasons are simple: people working from home reduce the number of cars on the road, reduce the number of people community and traveling, thereby reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption.
We can expect the working from home trend to continue across various industries and businesses, big and small this year. Big companies such as Twitter, Shopify, Coinbase and other tech companies have already committed to their staff working from home even when the pandemic ends. This means widespread benefits to the environment generally from less consumption. In the words of Kate Lister, the President of Global Workplace Analytics, ” … there is no easier, quicker, and cheaper way to reduce your carbon footprint than by reducing commuter travel.”
2. Sustainability will be a core focus of companies
For years now, there has been a growing move by companies towards sustainability. Most of this progress has been a result of pressure from their customers. It seems that pressure has now reached critical mass. For instance, between January and October in 2020, £7.8bn was placed into responsible investment funds in the UK, which accounted for almost half of all net money placed into funds (47.5%).
This was four times higher than over the same period in 2019 and demonstrates a real shift in savers’ priorities.
As a rising trend, more companies will make sustainability a core part of their brand identity in 2021. From beauty to transport, sports to tech, we can expect to see companies put sustainability at the forefront of their brand identity. This may precipitate actual progress and perhaps may go beyond the greenwashing and token sustainability actions that we have come to expect from companies.
3. ESG investments will keep rising
ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance and refers to a form of investing which puts the interests of the environment, social good and governance as its guiding principles. It is a form of investing that has grown since the pandemic began and will continue to grow. This trend will be driven by the realisation of the importance of non-financial considerations in the wake of a pandemic where people questioned the value of everything.
For instance, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager with US$7.81 trillion in assets under management by the end of 2020, has come to understand that sustainability is fundamentally reshaping the world of finance and has currently adopted sustainability to be at the center of its investment ethos. In addition, the emergence of John Biden as the next President of the United States has signalled a positive outlook for the sector. The President elect has expressed his unalloyed support for climate action. Such factors often drive markets to move in certain directions.
ESG growth is good news. For starters, higher inflows for ESG investments means more money for sustainability-focussed companies in the economy. This in turn means more sustainable companies and also is bound to result in a corresponding increase in creative sustainable solutions in various sectors of the global economy. This will lay the solid groundwork for an easier adoption of sustainability practices and policies in the private and public sector.
4. Beauty will go clean
While most of the fashion industry has faced pressure to become more ethical and sustainable, the beauty industry has remained relatively undisturbed. However, 2020 saw a marked increase in pressure by consumers, from vegan customers right through to those advocating for more diversity and inclusivity in marketing campaigns as a result of Black Lives Matter. Companies like L’Oreal have already started working towards this.
Clean beauty is a difficult concept to define but 2021 is the year we see action towards more clarity on this concept as well as shifts towards the use of natural, organic and cruelty-free ingredients. The growth of this trend will also include a focus on reduction of plastic packaging and greater transparency as to the use of synthetic ingredients and harmful substances.
It might even go as far as positively changing the marketing methods of various beauty brands away from tactics which have sometimes been less than savoury including image retouching and image manipulation.
5. Less packaging
We practically spent the year 2020 locked down at home, buying and living off only the things we truly needed, having items delivered such as food and online purchases, making things such as sourdough bread and many meals from scratch, planting veggie gardens and rearranging our interiors to include more natural elements such as indoor plants. The result is an increased realization of how wasteful current packaging practices are. Now when you connect this increased awareness with an ever-growing understanding of the problems of plastic waste and resulting environmental pollution, it’s easy to understand why ‘less packaging’ is a sustainable trend to watch out for this year.
The predicted rise of this trend in 2021 will not be confined only to online companies and deliveries. Companies across all sectors, small businesses, big retailers and FMCG companies will work better to reduce their plastic packaging or transition to more innovative and sustainable packaging methods including the use of plant-based compostable and biodegradable packaging.
6. Gen Z takes the mantle
Thanks to internet accessibility, there has probably never been a generation more vocal than the Gen Z (people born between 1999 to the present). These digital natives are also aware of the climate change and the burden of responsibility befalling on them to deal with the issues, and as a result, are more vocal about sustainability and environmental issues. Research suggests that 54% of young adults think a company’s environmental and social efforts are very or extremely important when considering whether to purchase a service or a product, and Millennials, born a generation prior, aren’t that far behind (48%).
In 2021, their voices will ring louder than ever as climate change becomes an increasingly pressing issue the longer governments and companies wait to implement action. This coupled with the fact that Gen Z will possess more purchasing power as they gain employment in greater numbers in the workforce suggests that companies and institutions will be required to look at environmental and sustainability seriously should they wish to attract this values-focussed generation.
7. Supply chains will becomes more transparent and circular
Supply chains are the livewires of businesses all across the globe. The supply chain is the whole network of entities that participate in getting a product from its origin to a customer and unfortunately, this is also where the bulk of unethical and unsustainable business practices occur since there are myriad of transactions and stakeholders involved. With the pandemic keeping us all at home, the need for short, transparent and circular supply chains has never been greater. Consumers are more aware of social and environmental issues and as such as demanding more transparency from companies around how the products are made and whether workers have been paid and treated fairly.
For instance, fashion brands and retailers such as Boohoo, Forever21, Victoria’s Secret and even ‘ethical fashion’ darling Everlane have come under fire for failing to pay their suppliers in countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This would have been unheard even just a decade ago as fashion supply chains were usually shrouded in secrecy.
This trend of supply chain transparency will continue and extend to every sector as companies aim to win customer favour. The companies who become successful will be the ones who create circular, transparent and sustainable supply chains.
8. Carbon offsetting goes mainstream
Carbon offsetting refers to an action or activity (such as the planting of trees or carbon sequestration) that compensates for the emission of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. A carbon offset occurs when an individual company or organization directly or indirectly (by funding carbon-offset projects locally or internationally) removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or prevents a certain quantity of greenhouse gases from being released.
While the concept is common in sustainability circles, 2021 will see more mainstream consumers and brands jump on the carbon offsetting bandwagon. With the emergence of apps and programs that have made carbon offsetting just clicks away, carbon offsetting is set to go mainstream and public.
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Cover image via Noissue.