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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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  • Beyond executive pay, we’ve seen the inequality conversation manifest itself into ‘living wage’ campaigns rippling through the service sector in 2013. Image by Ari Moore, Flickr

    This is post 1 of 10. See next.

    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.

    “‘How can it be,’ he wrote, ‘that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?‘” That was President Obama quoting Pope Francis in a wide-ranging December speech on income inequality, which he called the “defining challenge of our time.” It also represented a high water mark in what has been a remarkable year in raising the profile of inequality as not only an urgent societal issue, but also a critical business one….

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  • Experts feel the urgency of issues like food safety is on the increase but corporate performance is still lagging behind. Image © David W Oliver, Flickr

    What issues are sustainability experts most concerned about? How well is the private sector addressing these challenges? Which sectors are most accountable for tackling these vexing problems? After analyzing responses from nearly 900 sustainability experts in 91 countries, the recently released 2013 Issues Survey, Challenges, Performance and Accountability, dives into these thorny issues, with mixed results.

    It’s been nearly two years since The GlobeScan / Sustainability Survey explored how our international pool of sustainability experts see issues—ranging from climate change to food safety—and the urgency and corporate performance surrounding them. In 2011 our survey (Key Challenges and Industry Performance) found urgency regarding several leading issues was in a slightly downward trend, and industries received mixed reviews about their ability to manage the transition to sustainable development—with no sectors receiving high marks for sustainability performance. …

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  • Will the vital pollination provided by bees, which is currently at risk due to Colony Collapse Disorder and other stresses, be the next big eco-system issue? Image © bob in swamp: Flickr

    On December 3, I moderated WBCSD’s US Midwest meeting, a one-day conference held in Columbus, Ohio whose theme was to “scale up and accelerate the transition to a sustainable economy, in the US and beyond.” The meeting was packed with excellent speakers, panels and working sessions on a diverse set of topics, including: ecosystem services, reporting, communicating with investors, inclusive business, innovation and business leadership.

    At the end of the day I was asked to wrap up the meeting with a “Top 10 List” of the issues that stood out most for me. I ended up with eleven key words and phrases. Much as Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier that goes to 11 was “one louder” than most amps, my Top 10 List is “one longer” than most Top 10 lists.

    1. Responsibility. I didn’t expect this to be on my list, but it popped up several times during the day. Ohio State University President Joseph Alutto kicked off the conference by telling us that OSU has a responsibility to address sustainability in both its operations and its curriculum. One of our corporate speakers declared that it is time for the business community to step up and take responsibility for leading the transition to a sustainable economy. With most of the conversation these days focusing on the business case, it was significant to hear that responsibility remains an important motivator. …

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  • Typhoon Haiyan Near Hainan Island, China. Image © NASA Goddard Photo and Video: Flickr.

    “But let us again be clear that we are witnessing ever more frequent, extreme weather events, and the poor and vulnerable are already paying the price.”

    Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, closed COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland — which took place Nov. 11 to 22 — with these harrowing words. Figueres puts a fine point on a key element within UN climate negotiations that have direct implications for the private sector.

    We are witnessing the early stages of a new normal in terms of climate impacts, and an increasingly public discussion regarding how we best prepare, who pays for “climate resilience,” and how we address the needs of poor and vulnerable populations most in harm’s way. Addressing these challenges will require the private sector to drive innovation toward problems that are still emerging, to help people with little money to spend. …

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  • Speakers highlighted the electrification of cities as a major opportunity for cutting carbon emissions. But collaboration between city administrations and ICT intelligence providers will be critical to harmonizing electricity supply and demand.

    Last week, I attended the ‘Business Day’ event held by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) as part of World Climate Summit 2013 during COP19 in Warsaw. The mission of the day was to explore WBCSD’s ‘big ideas’ to avoid the trillionth ton of carbon. For WBCSD, the big ideas are business solutions, the core of their recently launched Action 2020. The Action 2020 framework for action builds upon Vision 2050 and considers nine priority areas, including climate change, which addressed together will bring about transformative change….

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  • Solar energy generation is gaining momentum. Image courtesy of University of Saskatchewan Flickr.

    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.

    Improving Transparency to Tackle Corruption

    Transparency International’s latest report, Transparency in Corporate Reporting: Assessing Emerging Market Multinationals, evaluates the reporting practices of 100 companies in emerging economies including China, India and Brazil. The companies assessed in the study achieved an average score of 46% in reporting on their anti-corruption programmes with Chinese companies achieving the lowest scores….

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  • Image courtesy of .craig on Flickr

    In late October, Net Impact’s 2013 conference gathered nearly 3,000 students and professionals interested in advancing corporate sustainability in San Jose, CA under the theme “Change Starts Here.”

    The personal dedication to making a difference implied by the conference refrain was on display in the experiences shared during the “Driving Sustainability into Core Business Strategy” panel I moderated on October 25th with Jonathan Atwood, VP Sustainable Living & Corporate Communications, Unilever; Lynelle Cameron, Senior Director Sustainability & Philanthropy, Autodesk; and Vincent Stanley, VP Marketing, Patagonia. With some eight decades of experience among them, they’ve had long turns at the wheel on the journey to make sustainability core to the private sector. …

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  • Image courtesy of Christopher Chan ©2011

    “What unites us on an urban level is more unifying than divisive.” – Paul Hawken

    If you were to judge solely by the plenary sessions at VERGE, a conference uniting the sustainability and tech communities in San Francisco last week, you would be hard-pressed not to be hopeful that we are turning a corner on the greatest sustainability challenges of the 21st Century because of, not in spite of, business. The intersection points between business and society’s agendas are undoubtedly growing and this overlap is nowhere more apparent than in cities. …

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  • Many business leaders find themselves stuck in a plateau on their ascent towards “Mount Sustainability,” unable to scale at the pace required to address global challenges, says the CEO Study on Sustainability” by the U.N. Global Compact and Accenture. The report is an important read for anyone working in the sustainability profession, and the results show how far corporations have come in their journeys towards sustainability, as well as how far we have to go….

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