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  • Flickr image by matthewthecoolguy

    At the end of 2013, we asked a select group of clients and experts from our network what they thought would be on the horizon for sustainability in 2014. We published over 20 responses in the most recent edition of Radar and from time to time, we’ll highlight those responses on our blog.

    “I see the emergence of a new approach to sustainable marketing, an approach that is in tune with how consumers shop: moving away from the ineffective approach of just giving consumers information to constructing a shopping environment that will help consumers notice, remember, see and ultimately buy sustainable brands.”
    — Daniel Vennard, Global Sustainability Director for Brands, Mars Inc.

    “An increased focus on ESG materiality assessment as a mainstream corporate responsibility practice (with the new focus on materiality in the GRI G4 guidelines, SASB, and IIRC efforts).”
    — Steve Lippman, Director, Corporate Citizenship, Microsoft …

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  • Flickr image by Barefoot Photographers of Tilonia

    Rice paddies and colorful tractors are common sights in remote parts of south India. So, too, are small shanties, brightly painted shops and coconut palms. But nowadays, in some villages, solar panels have also become part of the landscape, covering shingled roofs and competing with the palms for sunlight.

    The panels are helping to catapult energy-poor villagers – who previously had no, or only very limited, electricity – into a more sustainable future. This leap to renewable energy is the result of an innovative business model that’s being rolled out to low-income communities in the state of Karnataka.

    The company behind this new model is Simpa Networks, a technology company that aims to make sustainable energy affordable to all – even those who make less than $2 a day. In particular, Simpa targets customers who have limited access to electricity and use kerosene lanterns, which can pose health and safety risks, to illuminate their small homes. It also targets customers with little, if any, disposable income, who can’t afford to buy its solar products for $200 to $400 each – even though Simpa claims its system could yield significant savings over its 10-year lifespan. …

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  • Rob Frederick is Vice President and Director of Corporate Responsibility at Brown-Forman, a global producer of spirits and wines including brands such as Jack Daniels, Finlandia, Herradura and Woodford Reserve. Prior to joining Brown-Forman, Rob helped define and implement sustainability strategy at Ford Motor Company.

    Rob was a client of SustainAbility at Ford and continues to work with us at Brown-Forman. Michael Sadowski, VP at SustainAbility, leads this work and recently spoke with Rob to discuss his corporate experience to date and the most material issue for a spirits and wine company – responsible drinking.

    Michael Sadowski: You were at Ford during the early days of its corporate responsibility (CR) efforts and helped start Brown-Forman’s CR program. How do you compare your experiences at Ford and Brown-Forman?

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  • Flickr image by NAMU-Cube

    Between traditional news channels, blogs, and social media, it can be hard to keep up with what’s making waves in the field of sustainable development. In this roundup we aim to cut through the noise with a handful of highlights that have caught our eye.

    In his 2014 State of the Union address Barack Obama underscored the urgent action required on climate change but made no mention of controversial and divisive energy policy matters such as approving the TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. Environmental groups and energy experts question how long it is possible to sustain an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy, which backs investment in clean energy alternatives on one hand but also promotes rampant drilling and mining of fossil fuels on the other.

    The Obama administration is not the only one finding itself at this energy crossroads. The uncomfortable transition from fossil fuels to renewables is playing out in a tug of war between the high-carbon lobby and more progressive companies placing their bets on the transition to a low-carbon economy. …

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  • Flickr image by Creativity103

    The long-awaited framework from the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) was released late last year, offering a set of guidelines to more deeply integrate sustainability into corporate objectives and to holistically account for the value businesses create. Integrated reporting (IR) is on its way to becoming the new norm for reporting.

    At the integrated reporting launch in December in London, the Prince of Wales’ comment that IR has the potential to “communicate value for the 21st century” echoes this sentiment. As described in an earlier blog post, the framework helps solve a number of problems presented by conventional sustainability reporting, such as the failure to account for all sources of value and impact, the overwhelming length of reports, and the challenge to communicate the important link between sustainability and financial performance to stakeholders. …

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  • The idea of business model innovation—that a company could launch a new business model never conceived of before, or transform an existing business model—has long captivated business leaders. And yet, executives are often held back by vested interests in their current approach: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But as global trends—environmental, social, political, technological—continue to shift the foundations of our current business models, incremental innovation will become less effective in enabling companies, industries and whole economies to adapt and succeed. There is an urgent need for fundamentally different approaches to value creation….

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  • We are pleased to publish the results of The 2013 Ratings Survey: Polling the Experts, the latest expert survey on sustainability ratings and rankings from the GlobeScan / SustainAbility Survey series. As with the surveys preceding it, we took the pulse of experts from around the world (see report below for details) on topics including rating credibility, drivers of such credibility and the importance of ratings in driving improved corporate performance. The survey comes at a good time, as we’ve recently seen a burst of activity around existing ratings (e.g. the Global 100, CDP’s Supply Chain Report) and new ones (e.g. Natural Capital Leaders Index)….

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  • Business Model Innovation: Postcards from the Edge

    24 Jan 2014 – Melanie Colburn

    Flickr image by emersonquinn

    What will business look like in 2025 or 2050? How will successful corporations adapt to the mega trends stemming from the sustainability challenge?

    These questions hint at a few of the implications of SustainAbility’s current think tank work. Earlier this month, we tested some ideas from our forthcoming paper on business model innovation, entitled Model Behavior, at a roundtable event in San Francisco. Attendees included representatives from B Lab, Gap, GlobeScan, Impact HUB Bay Area, Levi Strauss & Co, PG&E, Safeway, SAP, and Vodafone, among other organizations. (Quotes from the discussion included below are edited to provide anonymity, unless attribution was granted.)

    Tell Me How to Move This Mountain

    As one roundtable attendee attested, ‘The last time [my company] went through a business model transition it didn’t go so well—either for [the company] or [its stakeholders]—but we know business model innovation needs to happen.” …

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  • In December we wrote about the top trends that our team tracked in 2013. If you missed them, here’s a summary to help you navigate to the main articles….

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  • Flickr image by Kaptain Kobold

    Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, SustainAbility convened its annual Engaging Stakeholders workshop at member company PG&E’s Pacific Energy Center in San Francisco. The venue, a public education resource that promotes and supports energy efficiency, provided an ideal setting for wider discussions about the sustainability agenda….

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  • E-Choupal's alternative marketplace gave local farmers access to market information, like corn prices, that they didn't have before. Flickr image by Martin Lopatka

    This is the first in a series of posts originally published on Guardian Sustainable Business about business-model innovations that accelerate social and environmental impact.

    More than a decade ago, the Indian conglomerate ITC created a new model for sourcing agricultural commodities from rural villages. It brought internet terminals – called e-Choupals – into farming villages, which gave local farmers access to market information they hadn’t had before. The innovation created business value for ITC by strengthening its supply chain, and provided social value by delivering benefits to farmers. But it did something else, too: it also disrupted the marketplace.

    The terminals ended the information asymmetry that had long hindered rural farmers, who had little negotiating power at the government-mandated marketplace, called a mandi. The e-Choupal enabled access to market pricing information for crops, giving farmers the choice of when to sell and for how much. ITC has since placed 6,500 e-Choupals, serving more than 4 million families, in 40,000 villages….

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  • The EU has placed a moratorium on neonicotinoids, pesticides linked to declines in bee populations around the world that put at risk bees’ roles in pollinating three quarters of the world’s crops. Flickr image by nicora.

    This is post 10 of 10. See previous.

    For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

    More than ten years after the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) study of hormone-disrupting chemicals—commonly found in agricultural pesticides and household items like plastics and cosmetics—turned up “weak” evidence on the connection to human health, much has changed. In 2013, when WHO and UNEP refreshed their study, a panel of 16 scientists from 10 countries found “emerging evidence for adverse reproductive outcomes’ and mounting evidence for effects on thyroids, brains and metabolism.” The report concludes that we are now facing a “global threat” that all national governments should address.

    Some governments have heeded the warning, albeit slowly and in part. In 2013, we’ve seen the EU place a moratorium on neonicotinoids&, pesticides linked to declines in bee populations around the world that put at risk bees’ roles in pollinating three quarters of the world’s crops. What’s more, the European Food Safety Authority warned that neonicotinoids may harm the development of unborn babies and called for cutting maximum exposure levels. Beyond “neonics,” the U.S. FDA has proposed a rule requiring manufacturers to prove antibacterial soaps are safe. …

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  • The main driver for the decline in coal usage has been hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking), a process more frequently utilized through advancements in technology. Flickr image of Long Eaton coal plant by lewismd13.

    This is post 9 of 10. See next or previous.

    For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

    Every year, a number of organizations publish long-term energy forecasts. The two most recent ones were the World Energy Outlook 2013 from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040 from ExxonMobil. These reports paint a future that is more or less the same when it comes to how fossil fuels contribute to our energy future – the IEA predicts that 75% of global energy demand will come from fossil fuels by 2035 (vs. 82% today) while ExxonMobil forecasts a similar figure for 2040.

    While these robust research pieces are must reads for anyone working in the energy space, a variety of technical, environmental and societal factors make their predictions about the future of energy more uncertain than ever. …

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  • Crowd-sourced models enable individuals to invest directly in solar projects and novel partnerships will finance solar projects. Image by Activ Solar, Flickr

    This is post 8 of 10. See next or previous.

    For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

    In the wake of the 2007/8 financial crisis, the phrase “financial engineering” has come to have a negative connotation, conjuring images of math wizards creating esoteric financial products that brought our global financial system to its knees. While such engineering is showing signs of a gradual rebirth, we see a new form of financial engineering happening–one that promises beneficial social and environmental outcomes. …

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  • Dallas, Texas is a city that's taken steps with legislation to effectively ban fracking. Image by sparkleplen_t, Flickr

    This is post 7 of 10. See next or previous.

    For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

    This year, the Brookings Institution, Benjamin Barber, Thomas Friedman and Paul Hawken, among others, have argued that city governments are now setting the standard for effective policymaking, referring specifically to prominent US examples, but articulating a trend that can also be seen in large cities from Europe to Latin America. We have written about cities as influential levers to sustainable development before, but are now aware of burgeoning interest from companies, more frequently asking how to work with cities, not why. That is in part because the why has become readily apparent, whether via decisive regulation (e.g. Beijing tightening car ownership quotas further to combat air pollution and congestion or Dallas, Texas effectively banning natural gas fracking) or expanding influence of trans-border urban partnerships on sustainability (e.g. C40, Urban Sustainability Directors Network, or Rockefeller Foundation’s upstart global network of Resilient Cities). The latter example, which will spur the creation of 33 ‘Chief Resilience Officers,’ a position that has no equivalent in national/local government or the private sector, is exemplary of the experimentation and capacity for disruption that is attracting the private sector to work with urban actors. Walmart, for instance, wants to dramatically increase waste diversion rates across the U.S. to help achieve its own sustainability goals and is working with city governments and across its value chain to do so. Meanwhile, Shell is using cities as a lens to explore ways to address the food-water-energy nexus globally. And automotive, energy and technology companies are coming together as part of WBCSD’s Mobility 2.0 initiative and will pilot sustainable mobility interventions across cities and companies. …

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  • Following a number of 2013 supply chain crises, such as the horsemeat scandal (which saw Findus and others forced into recalls), there has been an emergence of technologies which trace a product’s journey from source to store. Image © London Permaculture

    This is post 6 of 10. See next or previous.

    For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

    “There is no point in wishing the complexity away—it’s already here…” My colleague Lorraine Smith wrote this while assessing the state of transparency in the corporate sector today, evoking a thread that ties far-flung supply chain crises erupting in 2013–from the apparel sector’s Rana Plaza factory collapse to the food and retail sector’s horse meat contamination scandal. Technology to trace product supply chains from source to store has emerged strongly in 2013 as a pathway to understand and address the complexity, while foreshadowing its potential future role as an enabler of collaboration within and across companies’ value chains….

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  • Overturning longstanding gender norms is an imperative for global food security given that female farmers “feed more and more of the world”. Image of Women Farmers Network in Chakwal. ©Anduze traveller, Flickr

    This is post 5 of 10. See next or previous.

    For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

    “One of the issues that has emerged most strongly…is the need to tackle inequalities and structural discrimination in the new [post-2015] development agenda, especially gender inequality and gender-based discrimination which was identified as underpinning and reinforcing all other forms of inequality.”UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri, September 2013….

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  • The fossil fuel divestment movement across cities and universities has grown faster than any previous divestment campaign in history. Flickr image by 350.org.

    This is post 4 of 10. See next or previous.

    For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

    “Civil society is being suppressed, governments are backsliding and the broad climate movement must now take action.” This was Anjali Appadurai of the youth-focused climate group Earth in Brackets after a number of environment and development NGOs, including Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam and 350.org, walked out of climate change talks in Warsaw in November. Disgruntlement with the scale and pace of government action on sustainability is nothing new—our 2013 Sustainability Leaders survey found that perceptions of national government leadership in advancing sustainable development were the lowest they’ve ever been (corporate leaders fared better, but not by much). But what the walk-out may symbolize is what we can expect to see more of between NGOs, governments and businesses between now and 2015, the proverbial ‘closing window’ to avert climate-induced disaster at the COP summit in Paris: battle lines being re-drawn among and within actors, even while there are more calls than ever for greater collaboration of all kinds. …

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  • The expanding legitimacy of waste picking. Image of Filipino waste picker by Global Environment Facility, Flickr.

    This is post 3 of 10. See next or previous.

    For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

    From 1900 to 2000, global population increased just under four times, while the amount of waste produced by humans increased ten times. With waste set to double again by 2025, and the world facing a number of drivers (e.g. less space for landfills, urbanization, volatile commodity prices) that are already upending the status quo, a variety of actors are viewing waste as an enormous business opportunity….

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  • "The catastrophization of the future freezes people," said Paul Hawken at this year's VERGE SF conference. Image by net_efekt, Flickr

    This is post 2 of 10. See next or previous.

    For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

    “The catastrophization of the future freezes people.” If there was a common theme at the various sustainability conferences we attended this year it was an acknowledgment that collectively, the sustainability movement has failed at telling a compelling (read: positive) story of what a sustainable future looks like. This quote from Paul Hawken at the VERGE SF conference was followed by similar sentiments from Amory Lovins and Andy Revkin that we’ve had very little to show when deploying ‘sky is falling’ rhetoric. As Jo Confino of Guardian Sustainable Business summarized, “The greatest risk to the sustainability movement is that it is struggling, and so far failing, to articulate a vision of a future that is both prosperous while remaining within planetary boundaries.” …

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