Earth Day 2019: Will this year mark a tipping point for sustainability?

April 22, 2019

Over the past few years, there’s been debate over the progress we’re making to achieve critical sustainability goals. Is progress happening? (Yes.) Is it happening fast enough? (No.) So why, on this Earth Day, after we’ve been witness to so many starts and stops (Paris Climate Agreement vs. U.S. withdrawal), does 2019 feel different for many of us in the sustainability community?

As a sustainability communications counselor, I’ve watched the rate and success of sustainability goals influenced time and again by a core set of factors.

  • Is there a CEO or C-suite champion?
  • Is there a clear purpose and are employees truly engaged in advancing those goals?
  • Are there measurable business and sustainability KPIs that are not in conflict?
  • Is deep collaboration with internal and external parties taking place?

earth day 2019 - sustainability goals

There may be other success factors (e.g., transparency) but, at the very least, when a piece of the above puzzle is missing, the program, whether it’s reducing packaging, cutting greenhouse gas emissions or saving water, will be delayed, won’t reach its potential and at times falls apart.

I was fortunate to recently represent Ketchum at the annual GreenBiz conference where I, and attendees I spoke with, were excited to see that the core success principals we’ve been counseling are more prevalent than ever among corporate sustainability programs. There were a few themes that companies cited as drivers for deepening sustainability efforts…

1. More powerful champions.
In lieu of the United States’ CEO leading on sustainability from the White House, the “c-suite” of our country is stepping up. While far from perfect, the Green New Deal legislation has launched a broad, holistic sustainability conversation into the mainstream for the first time. It’s sweeping focus is what’s needed, as it aims to break down sustainability silos and shift understanding of the interconnectedness of government, business and community. Also spurring into action are the “Chief Financial Officers.” Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investing applies to 1 out of every 4 dollars or $12 trillion in the United States and $23 trillion globally. That’s up from 1 out of every 6 dollars three years ago. Of course these are just a few of the powerful leaders pledging along with Larry Fink to advance global and national sustainability goals.

2. Increased engagement.
The past year has seen an explosion in consumer concern around plastic waste. The physical reality, emotional connection, immediate consequences, and fact that solutions feel within reach are likely the factors that quickly galvanized consumers into global action in a way the climate change movement has struggled with for decades. To the surprise of many brands, consumers found their passionate environmental cause. Still, progress continues to be made in raising concern among consumers about the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. A recent Yale poll found that six in ten Americans are either “alarmed” or “concerned” about global warming, with the “alarmed” group having doubled since 2013. And let’s not forget, Millennials are far more passionate and creative on how to engage in this topic than recent generations, so we are just seeing the emergence of a new era of sustainability engagement.

3. Global sustainability goals.
As a result of the 2015 adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), we now have a global focus on the major social and environmental issues we need to address by 2030. In September, the United Nations will release an assessment of progress against the 17 ambitious SDG commitments to make our planet happy and healthier (think: end poverty and hunger, and ensure clean water and livable wage). For the first time, we will have a collective scorecard against which hundreds of nations and leading companies have aligned. The world will be watching and will be ready to hold leaders accountable to the results. Fast on the heels of September, we turn the corner into 2020 – the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the milestone year for hundreds of sustainability goals set by companies, governments and academic institutions. Expect these moments to put pressure on laggards to act faster.

4. Product lifecycle partnerships.
Corporate and NGO partnerships aren’t new thanks in part to the groundbreaking work done more than 30 years ago by the Environmental Defense Fund, but a clear sign of the deepening understanding of the complexity of sustainability issues is the increasingly holistic approach to today’s collaborations. There are countless examples, but most recently there’s LOOP, which launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January with plans to offer consumers reusable packaging for 300 products from two dozen brands and logistics partner, UPS, already on board; or the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which brings together nonprofits and companies across the entire plastics value chain, pledging to commit $1.5 billion over the next five years. Partnerships and alliances that include competitors, full lifecycle representation and global presence, demonstrate an evolution to a more sophisticated approach to problem solving in the name of sustainability.

Is 2019 the year when we’re able to say as a nation or world that we made definitive, significant progress to address the many pressing sustainable challenges we face? Only time will tell. But the momentum is promising. If your company hasn’t successfully embedded the core sustainability factors most likely to lead to success, 2019 is the year to do it.

Jessica Mendelowitz is a senior counselor in Ketchum’s Purpose Practice, which develops data-driven communications plans to create measurable results in the areas of sustainability, CSR and social impact.