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So 2014 (see 2014 Review blog) was not a straightforward year in the world of sustainable business and no one expects 2015 to be miraculously different! 

  • Road to Paris – This time next year we will have an agreement it just is very unlikely to be the one we need. Bi-lateral agreements will be sought to replicate the momentum that the China-US agreement recently created. India is becoming the dominant ‘swing voter’ on success and needs to see how low carbon will enable development. Despite the COP gloom there is some momentum in the low carbon world with renewable deployment costs falling; the phasing out of some of the worse carbon practices (deforestation); the development of smart (and efficient) cities and mobility systems; and (the next big thing) green products and services become cost neutral AND desirable. The OPEC vs US Shale price war is a further complication, creating short term uncertainty for renewable investment but potentially creating long term opportunity as oil investment is choked off in the face of plummeting prices. 
  • City scale – National gridlock is being replaced by more intimate action at a City (NYC, Copenhagen, London) and regional (Wales, California) level. People realise that a capital city bound or global elite cannot impose change on a connected, empowered society. Citizens need to be brought closer to the decisions that affect them. We are now asking what is the smallest scale at which we can make swift decisions yet which still allow us to make a real difference?  
  • Connectivity – We will see an acceleration of connected thinking on sustainability particularly in business. No longer looking at individual social and environmental issues in isolation but ‘joining the dots’ to see how issues reinforce each other and in many cases need trade-offs between economic, social and environmental benefits. There is a trend towards considering whole forest landscapes rather than individual forest locations. The same will start to happen in farming, water catchments and the marine environment. Business will also link in more closely with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals than it managed with the rather distant Millennium Development Goals. 
  • Disruption – Sustainability still feels like an optional extra for many businesses, lacking the visceral ‘must do’ that internal discussions about digital, pricing, channels engender. That is starting to change as clever entrepreneurs like Elon Musk threaten the very existence of their 20th Century competitors with disruptive business models. A poor approach on sustainability is no longer a small, manageable reputational risk but a very threat to your existence. Woven into these new business models is the rise of new technologies, swapping Sci-fi comics for reality. Drones, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing etc will enable change but throw up a whole gamut of new, particularly ethical, issues. 
  • Inequality – For several years social issues have felt like the Cinderella of the sustainability debate lacking the incumbency of economics and the (relative) clarity of environment (where business could galvanise behind a few big issues – carbon, water, waste, forests). Social in comparison has been fragmented. Tax, privacy, labour standards, fair wages, payments to growers, communities, wellbeing, lobbying to name but a few sub issues. But 2015 will see social get its ‘carbon’ in a unifying word that links multiple impacts and activities. Maybe it’s Piketty’s book, maybe lengthy austerity, maybe global instability but the word ‘inequality’ and how business tackles its many strands will become an imperative. 
  • Defining success – So much of businesses’ work on sustainability has been focused on reducing today’s negative impacts and the moderate business benefits that can accrue from this. Less attention has been paid to defining where we want to get to, a truly sustainable economic system. The Aldersgate Group’s recently launched ‘An Economy that Works’ seeks to do this. Expect their work and that of others to start to re-define the sustainable business narrative in terms of ‘better for all’ rather than ‘less bad for some’. 

So what does this mean for business? It’ll have to be agile as technologies, business models and new issues emerge fast. It’ll have to collaborate even harder, not just on single issues like deforestation but also on defining the goal we’re aiming for – a sustainable society supported by a sustainable economy that works for everyone. Above all it needs to work out how hard it will push policy makers to tackle issues like climate change or whether it’s willing to wait until the inevitable economic impacts of inaction occur.

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