Sustainability trends post-pandemic and the green issues that need to be addressed in 2021

During the month of December 2021, AMBITION will be highlighting its top 25 most-read articles of the year in reverse order, in the form of a thought leadership advent calendar. Here’s what is behind today’s door.

As sustainability becomes a need-to-have in all businesses, changes such as downsizing office space, and offering hybrid working and virtual meetings may be preferable even when face-to-face meetings are possible again, because it all helps to reduce our carbon footprint and save cost, says Michael Stausholm

Originally published 1 February 2021.

This year, sustainability is on the agenda higher than ever before. The concerted move towards more conscious consumerism has been on its way for at least a decade but the pandemic has forced us to take the environment even further into account.

With vaccination roll-outs, the Brexit deal with the EU having been finalised, and President Joe Biden’s climate agenda at the fore, 2021 has gotten off to a positive start, all things considered. The US being, once again, in the Paris Agreement, is great news not only for USA but the rest of the world. It will also inspire UK companies to put even more focus and investment into sustainability.

As a result, there will be certain trends we will see emerging throughout the year, and there will be a number of key pressing issues businesses all over the world will need to address and work towards. These include five of the below areas.

1Sustainability will move from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have

Sustainability will no longer just be nice to have for business i.e. something you put on your website because it’s trendy or sounds good. Instead, it will be crucial for businesses. With the increased focus on the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals and with a rising demand from consumers, businesses will need to put their good intentions into action.

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of wanting to make a positive change on the climate and that to do so, that they must act responsibly and sustainably in their everyday choices. Therefore, businesses must take this seriously and look very hard at the way they do business, because these new consumers are also educated and wary of corporations and their tenuous sustainability claims – if you are moving toward being “eco-friendly”, you must define how.

For example, an eco-friendly product is core to what we have at Sprout World – pencils that turn into plants after use. But our goal for this year is to become even more sustainable. It’s a work in progress; no business can be perfect or 100% sustainable to begin with but as long as you move forward towards environmental improvements, you are on the right track.

2There will be a clean-up of greenwashing

Greenwashing is designed to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is. It’s a common way for businesses to brand themselves as being good for the planet. But somehow, the pandemic has made us all more allergic to brands that sugar-coat their businesses.

For example, the business of buying climate compensation is one way that many businesses claim that they are sustainable. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that climate compensation is nothing but a statement, just a lot of hot air, because in best case scenario, it is a neutral transaction, which does not encourage companies to make any impactful and lasting change for the environment.

Both media and consumers now have their eyes on the practice of greenwashing and even a small spark can set off a fire if you get caught. Not only is it unethical, it is also very damaging for brands and businesses, so be very careful about what you do and how you communicate your sustainability efforts and achievements.

In 2021, we will see more demand for proof of what lies behind the words you use as a company. For example, expect to provide substantial detail and clarity to questions such as: ‘What do you mean when you state that your products are “biodegradable”, “eco-friendly” or “recyclable”? Many businesses use these terms, but can you explain exactly what they mean and how your product, service or business meets those standards?

3Production will be brought closer to home

With the pandemic, I’ve seen many companies reconsider where they source their products, and this will continue in 2021. A large majority of consumer products are still made in China and this has shown to be a huge problem. Firstly, with manufacturing coming to a halt as a result of pandemic lockdowns in Asia, and secondly, companies have realised that they’ve lost control of how their products are produced. Low cost production is no longer that attractive if you make them at the cost to ethics and the environment. That’s why we will see many European and American companies pulling their production back to their continents in 2021. It’s easier to supervise and there will be more consumer demand for locally produced products.

4Implementation of blockchain technology will bring transparency to sustainability

Adopting blockchain technology will now be highly sought after for sustainability driven companies. In fact, it’s something we’re implementing at Sprout World because it means that anyone will be able to see where every component i.e. the wood, graphite or seeds in the pencils come from, where the pencils are then produced and from there, the journey into the customer’s hands.

Put simply, blockchain provides a verifiable record as to who buys what from whom. This means that a company’s claims of being resource-positive or reducing their environmental impact can be counter-checked and verified. The technology is still under development, but ultimately, it will mean that companies and consumers will be able to see the origin of every element of the product(s) you are selling. Imagine being able to scan a QR code on the product and receiving immediate information on where it comes from and the steps it has taken to reach you.

5Hybrid working and virtual meetings will continue to dominate to further the green agenda

The pandemic forced us to rethink business travel, meetings, trade fairs and conferences. For years, many of us have spent enormous amounts of time and money on strengthening our business relationships by meeting in person. 2020 showed us how much remote work and meet-ups can do for us. It can’t replace all interactions of physical togetherness, and we still need that, but we’ve realised that we can be much more selective with how we spend our resources.

Many business owners have had to ask whether big, expensive office facilities really are a necessity with the increase in remote work? At Sprout World, we are looking into the possibility of quitting our sizeable (and often half empty) office for renting co-working offices when necessary.

In fact, for sustainability driven companies, downsizing office space, and offering hybrid working and virtual meetings may even be preferable even when face-to-face meetings are possible again, because it all helps to reduce our carbon footprint. Collectively, we will save CO2 by not commuting on a daily basis, and this will prove to be a major benefit for the planet.

Michael Stausholm is Founder and CEO of Sprout World, the company behind the world’s only plantable pencil, with over 30 million pencils sold in more than 80 countries. Michael has advised Nike and Walmart on how to implement more sustainable production practices and mentors green start-ups as a board member of Greencubator.

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