Business innovation | Opinion

Is 2020 going to be (finally) the year of action?

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A decade of action to come?

Toby Webb and Peter Stanbury ponder how events might unfold over the coming year, and highlight the role of technology, partnerships and increasing public concern in driving business action on sustainability

At the start of any decade there’s a frenzy of speculation about how the coming ten years – and particularly the first twelve months – will shape up. And now is certainly no exception. This time, however, not least with the unfolding climate crisis and political retrenchment in many key economies, there really is a sense that we’re at a crucial point. Here are some thoughts on what might be to come. 

Politics: Trump, Brexit and dictatorship?

Anglo-Saxon politics in 2020 will be tumultuous to say the least. Trump. Brexit. These are, of course, well-trodden areas. But for sustainability in particular, it’s a big year. If Trump wins, we get four more years of nihilism and beggar-thy-neighbour policies and unfilled roles in the US administration. If he loses, climate change policy in 2021 and beyond will get a serious boost. Meanwhile, in the UK, the newly elected Conservative government looks set on a hard Brexit. This will have a significant impact on the UK economy. 

Both US change (or worsening of the political/climate stance) and UK chaos look set to happen towards the end of 2020, so expect a lot of meaningless noise in the first 6-10 months of 2020 on green-related policy, and not much impetus behind social issues in supply chains or elsewhere too. 

It may well be 12 months before there is a clearer picture of what may happen in 2021-2025 from the UK and US governments. Davos 2021 may be more interesting for business contributions to progressive policy in Anglo-Saxon politics than Davos 2020. 

In other areas, there are reports that China’s renewables boom is under serious threat, and of course their march towards dictatorship is no help to the furthering of human rights. The EU, disjointed yet unified around Brexit (even Hungary and Poland know where their real interests lie), will continue to push hard on plastics policies, circular approaches, climate change and areas such as mandatory due diligence on issues such as human rights and supply chain transparency. 

People: less mansplaining 

One bright spot is the increasing focus on inclusivity and how quickly that is accelerating – from workplace justice to the end of “manels” and “mansplaining” at conferences. Expect lots more progress in 2020. Business is fully on board with workplace rights. The question is, of course, how far that extends down the supply chain. 

Billionaires and CEOs may continue to wring their hands about inequality more broadly in 2020. But given the solutions are structural and political, many still have no clue what to do about it, outside their own organisations or immediate spheres of influence.

 Technology, technology, technology  

Technology in 2020 will be vital for business in transparency and traceability. Progress, rollout and cost reductions are accelerating so fast it’s hard to keep up. For example, companies can now see child labourers in fields almost “live” and take immediate remedial action. 

Development of tracking and farmer-enabling technologies will certainly be key themes of 2020. Big brands, and those who supply them, and who work deep in the supply chain, will begin making needed tech investments that will be game changing in the coming years. But, technology ain’t nothing without policy and reform (for more on this, see here).

 Climate change: all roads lead to Glasgow 

The UN climate talks in Madrid were a damp squib, with arguments about mitigation damning the summit to history. But, the broad objectives of the Paris Agreement continue, and politics in a year’s  time will be a key factor at the next round of talks in Scotland. 

In the meantime, public concern about the climate crisis continue to rise. From Thunberg to Attenborough, the media have recognised the opportunity for climate clicks, and that is helping. Expect 2020 to see a big rise in direct activism from campaigners and others. Some of it will be dumb and lacking strategy, but much will be well targeted and effective. Business now cannot escape having to take a leadership position on action, not just talking about it. 

 Supply chains: technology again  

Technology has always had a key role for companies engaging with their supply chains, and more so than ever in 2020. The big challenges are to avoid the “and so what?” factor of being highly informed about supply chain challenges but unable to do much about them. 

Like a modern war, you can do a lot with smart weapons, but eventually, you need “boots on the ground” to get things done. In the supply chain context, what this means is that no matter how good the aerial photography, or satellite imaging, it is only by engaging with governments and communities in producing regions that anything meaningful can be achieved. This is where the power of progressive business groups can, will, and must, make a bigger difference in 2020. 

Groups such as the Business Roundtable are setting a better tone in the US. Investor groups are jumping on board (just check out the FT’s coverage in 2019) and progressive thinkers from the Consumer Goods Forum and others are doing more practical work, which makes a big difference to sourcing policies and practices. 

Such industry groups are also demonstrating how important meaningful partnership is. Everyone has been saying “we can’t do this alone” for too long. There’s a clear sense that more companies, and their stakeholders, actually mean it and are now doing something about it. 

Expect more, a lot more, on all this in 2020. If nothing else, the new generation of consumers clearly expects both policy and action from business. Supply chains are where promises hit reality.

 The corporate agenda 

All of this means that companies are going to have to play a much-increased role in addressing the entire raft of sustainability issues. That’s not to say that, over the past couple of decades, companies haven’t taken huge strides on these issues. They have. But 2020 will be the year when the corporate sector is going to have to go even further, for a number of reasons. 

First, the international donor sector is not what is once was. The shift to the right in both the UK and the US means that two of the world’s main development agencies – USAID and DfID – are increasingly vehicles of their home countries’ foreign policy. Key development issues will therefore garner less attention from governments led by the likes of Trump and Johnson. 

Second, with 2030 looming as a key year for corporate targets, this year will see many big companies thrash out and finalise what theirs will look like. The NGO community will be watching and will point the finger, jab it even, when they see lack of necessary ambition and then progress. 

Third, companies are increasingly seeing the short-comings of their strategies to-date on addressing sustainability issues. The second half of 2019 saw a number of well-assessed critiques of supply chain standards, central to all of which was the observation that the challenges in supplier countries are not commodity-specific.

As the recent Innovation Forum sustainable landscapes conference demonstrated, companies will need to take a more holistic approach if real progress is to be made. The jury is out on how this is to be achieved, but 2020 will be the year in which companies need to start thinking about this seriously, and trying out new approaches.

Toby Webb is founder of Innovation Forum. Peter Stanbury is principal of The Frontier Practice

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