4 reasons why 2018 is the year for companies to step up their sustainability game

by Jan 4, 2018

Happy new year! Rather than writing my typical sustainability forecast for the new year, I thought it might be more helpful to connect a few dots – implications, really – of several events that occurred late last year that, in my view, lay out the rationale for 2018 being the Year of Sustainability.

Those events are:

  • The enormous tax cut signed into law at the end of last year
  • The #metoo movement
  • Record low unemployment
  • Wildfires destroying California, hurricanes battering Houston and Puerto Rico

Let’s take them in reverse order:

1. Americans are increasingly nervous about climate change.

In fact, our latest polling data reveals that 65% of Americans believe climate change is real and caused by man. And 76% of Millennials are anxious about how climate change will impact their quality of life. You can expect that with every weird weather event, that anxiety will only increase. Millennials, especially, are looking to corporations to take the lead on solving this problem. In fact, this is true globally. Early last year, Unilever ran a study of 20,000 global consumers that led them to conclude that in developing nations, people tend to feel the government has failed them. People see environmental devastation on a daily basis – and no efforts from the government to do anything about it. So, they’re counting on companies to take the lead on solving their environmental and social ills, and they will absolutely reward them with their purchases.

Presuming America continues to roll back its environmental safeguards … Scott Pruitt, if you’re listening, ALL Americans believe we have a fundamental right to clean air and clean water, regardless of how we vote. You’ll see this same expectation that companies take the lead on solving social and environmental problems grow in strength right here at home.

2. But it’s not just about selling product. It’s about attracting and retaining the best, brightest employees so you can stay competitive.

Lots of different polls – from Monster, LinkedIn and Shelton Group – have consistently revealed over the last several years that, duh, employees want to work for the good guys. Nobody sinks themselves into debt to get a high-end education only to go to work for a company that’s largely seen as a destroyer of the planet, or a steamroller of human rights. Now that unemployment is at record lows, employees finally get to be choosy. They can and will jump off your ship for one they believe is more committed to sustainability. You want to be the ship they jump on to, not the one they run away from. So you’d better have a strong sustainability story, backed up by real commitment and action, that you can broadcast not just in HR settings, but also in the greater court of public opinion. That hot new recruit you want listens to what her friends say on social media. When she lets them know she’s interviewing with you, you want her friends to say, “I’ve seen that they’re doing some really great things for people and the planet – that’s cool. I hope you get the job!”

3. That gets us to the #metoo movement. We have clearly arrived at a moment when many of us simply won’t stand for the status quo anymore – particularly when that status quo involves treating a class of people as “less than” or turning a blind eye to actions everyone knows are reprehensible.

Up until now, there’s been a lot of rationalizing related to the environment. We hear it especially in the utility industry: “We’d love to produce more clean energy, but we have to balance the needs of the environment with the need for reliability and keeping costs low.” I think this is going to increasingly come off as “we’re going to keep on polluting rather than innovating,” and I think people simply won’t stand for it.

As the smart tech and AI revolution continues to gain steam, new companies, products and services will be launched that will totally disrupt the utility industry. Will utilities still exist? Yes, someone does need to be the “air traffic controller” of the grid, after all. But the way we procure and manage energy will change rather drastically, just like the way we consume entertainment and information has changed drastically. That will be driven by convenience and cool factor – but also by this newfound backbone we have as a culture where we’re simply not going to allow old-school, hurtful ways of doing things to continue. And it won’t just be the utility industry. Consumers will actively look to get away from companies perceived to be polluters – they won’t stand for it anymore – and devote their loyalty to companies with new ideas, the ones working to solve our very real social and environmental problems.

To sum it all up thus far: consumers are anxious and simply won’t stand for companies to not commit to solving our biggest problems, and desirable employees simply won’t work for companies deemed to be perpetuating our biggest problem.

4. But, if this rationale isn’t enough for you, try this on: we all know corporations just got handed a big bag of money in the new tax law. What do you think Americans expect companies to do with that money?

Do you think most of us are like, “Good for them … those executives work so hard they deserve another $5-10 million, maybe even $100 million, in their 2018 bonuses!” Um, no. I believe Americans are going to be watching to see which companies use that newfound money for good. I believe the companies that take a stand – that publicly announce how they’re going to use those tax savings to solve the world’s biggest problems – are the ones we’ll be reading about, working for and buying from for years to come.

And I sincerely hope your company is one of those. Happy new year!

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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