Last month I offered my picks for the Top Sustainability Stories of 2011. Here are my predictions for the Top Sustainability Stories of 2012. (It’s a rugged mix of bad news and good.)
Climate heats up and hides out
The sheer pressure of the hard-to-escape evidence — more record-breaking temperatures, more disastrous weather events, big supply chain disruptions, ever-rising insurance payments — will drive more businesses to take global warming seriously as a business risk, even as The Economist and others blast the journalistic malpractice that leaves “climate” out of the weather disaster stories, and President Obama takes cover in an “all of the above” energy strategy.
US falls behind in solar
China, Germany, Brazil — and California — continue to invest policy and capital in the new economy, while Washington remains lost in ideological shock and awe (as House republicans tell the Pentagon “you have to waste taxpayers money and make the troops less safe so we can continue to ignore both the science and the economics of climate change”). But there are surprises too: “red state” Iowa has decided that exporting $6b/year to buy fossil fuel from unfriendly nations might not be the most “conservative” plan, and is investing government money to reduce that balance of payments deficit!
EPA battle royal
The right’s war on the EPA (and on regulation in general) will continue, and in fact heat up as campaign fodder. Little noticed: 191 house votes attacking the EPA in 2011. Expect this battle to continue into 2013 (depending on how the elections turn out).
But there’s good news too.
Green Chemistry & Biomimicry
These big ideas are taking deeper root, bring sustainability where it most matters — into the design process, which determines environmental impacts for years or decades to come. Just a few examples: University of California Berkeley has established a major, interdisciplinary green chemistry program, the Biomimcry Institute, re-branded as Biomimicry 3.8, is building its business leverage, and companies from Steelcase to Method are bringing this next generation of design science to market.
Radical Transparency and “Open Data”
This may be below the radar for many of you, but it’s big. Markets want — need — transparency; the simply don’t work well without open flows of information. Customers want transparency — whether a parent wanting to know what’s in the baby food to a global corporation wanting to be able to stand behind its products. Geeks love transparency — just look at the growth of the open source software industry. And sustainability requires transparency — and open, accessible, interoperable data — with initiatives as diverse as Nike’s GreenXchange patent sharing platform to GoodGuide‘s product rating tool and startup Open Data Registry’s innovation in supply chain information infrastructure. (Disclosure: I’m on the ODR board)
Widening green gap
Watch for big, bold moves from major brands, as more companies move sustainability from peripheral “nice to have” and corporation social “responsibility” to mission-critical business driver and corporate social imperative. And big, subtle moves too; as Adam Lowry, co-CEO of Method, put it recently: “People don’t want to buy green. They want to buy better. But green is a part of better.” Watch for big failures, too, from companies that won’t or can’t adapt; “Businesses that don’t take sustainability seriously,” as Ray Anderson often observed, “won’t be a problem, because they won’t be around.”
Getting the prices right
For as long as I’ve been in the sustainability game (40 years this summer, long before anyone coined the term), the challenge of “getting the prices right” — of eliminating the market-distorting impacts of “externalities” and subsidized environmental damage — has seemed a pivotal element of sustainability strategy. Succeed and we have a chance; fail, and we’re consigned to the fate of Sisyphus, endlessly pushing the boulder uphill, only to have it roll back down, again and again.
The good news: while this was once an esoteric subject, I now hear it on the “top three issues” list at many, perhaps most, of the discussions, meetings and conferences I attend. There’s still a long road and hard slog ahead, but the issue is on the table, the data is getting clearing, the innovations are starting to surface, and we will see much more on this critical topic in the years to come. (Join me at VERGE, where I’ll be leading a session on getting the prices right, and watch for my forthcoming book of the same name.)
I’ll stop there, with these two questions:
- What do you think will be the top sustainability stories of 2012?
- What will you make the top sustainability stories of 2012?
Because, as Scoop Nisker is fond of reminding us, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!”

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