This is the time of year when people assemble their top 10 lists for 2011 — movies, restaurants, etc, — and top sustainability stories and trends. Here are mine — not ranked, not complete, quite subjective, and hopefully rich food for thought for you. (Next time: my predictions for 2012!)
Green China?
Not quite (actually, not by a long shot), but China maintains strong investment in renewable energy and clean tech, even as US energy & climate policy remain mired in, well politics. Not much talked about: China’s Circular Economy Law. Its significance depends of course on how seriously it’s enacted — which so far appears to be “not much” — but as Hunter Lovins points out,

Hypocrisy is the first step to real change. I’ve talked to Chinese well aware of it, and while not enforced, it is a force in their thinking. I think as China wrestles with the inherent impossibilities of its situation they’ll return to it in future days.

So much ink has been spilled about Occupy that I’m not going to add much here, except to say that no one (including business leaders, not just political leaders), should underestimate:
– the growing revulsion at the destructive role of money in democracy;
– the emerging culture of open, transparent and engaged… (consider the role of social media in the Arab Spring, and its emerging role in the culture of business);
– the disruptive impact this may yet have on everything.
Obama under-rated & over-rated
The president, like Rodney Dangerfield, “can’t get no respect.” He both deserves more credit than he gets for many unheralded environmental policy moves (including points for mercury regulation and renewable energy investment) but continues to disappoint on climate and energy policy overall. (I knew, when I decided to vote for him, that this man would inevitably disappoint me — they all do — but I didn’t expect all the ways he would do it. No doubt he feels he has to choose his battles. But I’d like to see a few real battles, thank you very much.
Competing on sustainability
This is one of the most heartening signs. As companies learn the strategic benefits — and business imperatives — of sustainability, and overcome the now boring navel-gazing about the mysteriously elusive business case for sustainability, sustainability becomes a growing contributor to business value, and even a competitive differentiator. Who’s got the greener shoes — Nike, Puma or Adidas? I love that it’s not a slam dunk obvious question.
Sustainability is a team sport
Equally important is the growing recognition that collaboration is as important as competition. Multi-company and multi-stakehloder associations (The Sustainability Consortium, Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Outdoor Industry Association, to name just a few, in just one industry) have come together in the recognition that there are some changes that not even big companies can make alone. That can only be done collaboratively — perhaps most dramatically through the GreenXchange a multi-company alliance formed “to accelerate and scale sustainability-innovation through sharing intellectual property assets.” (Watch for much more about “open” next year.)
Ecological Accounting
Speaking of Puma, the domain of Ecological Accounting (or as I like to call it, reality-based accounting) took a huge step forward this year when Puma (with PWC and TruCost) produced an environmental balance sheet and P+L, suggesting what their financial would look like if “nature’s services” mattered. (They always have mattered, of course– even if we haven’t known how to value them.) The bottom line, so to speak: the ecological liability was material — more than 45% of Puma’s net earnings — and Puma’s parent company PPR plans to extend the analysis across the rest of its companies this year. (Note to CXOs: This is not just a PR or even a CSR exercise; it’s an opportunity — as are properly done Carbon Footprints and Life Cycle Assessments — to identify risk and value that your current financial management tools are literally unable to perceive.)
Rise of the CSO
As the Weinreb Group observed in CSO Back Story: How Chief Sustainability Officers Reached the C-Suite,

“the person in charge of corporate sustainability and corporate social responsibility has evoloved, from a largely director level position, to vice president to chief, over the last decade. as the sustainability function crept up the corporate ladder, so has the caliber of the person leading it. Thus we have the title “Chief Sustainability Officer,” which implies the senior-most sustainability leader in the senior-most possible position.”

This is a reflection of the increasing integration of “sustainability” with “business” — a trend we expect to continue and accelerate.
Big bets
Another measure of sustainability’s growing business maturity: companies are make bigger business bets on sustainability. The iconic examples of Interface, GE and WalMart (while the latter two still debatable) are joined by SAP, which says it will incorporate “sustainability” in all its products (which it asserts runs 60% of the global economy) within five years.
Renewables Trump Nuclear
Nuclear energy was big news in 2011, and not only because of the many layered Fukshima disaster (technical failure + terrible disaster planning + profound mendacity + political cowardice). In addition, this massively subsidized industry continues to lose orders, market share and price advantage to renewables. Plus, thermal energy generation will become increasingly problematic as temperatures rise; as one example, France has had to power down its reactors because it was unable to cool them.
Decline of stuff and the rise of collaborative consumption
It’s too early to write the obituary for our addiction to stuff, but at least it’s moving into the category of “everyone knows…” if still in the the category of “no one knows what to do.” Some of the drivers:
– the economic downtown, to be sure;
– a growing emotional hunger, in the “developed” world, for things more meaningful than things (and perhaps, in the “developing” world, for a different development path than the one the West has followed);
– a continued trend to dematerialization and servicizing (since, as Dave Gustershaw of Interface puts it, “all things being equal, each kilogram of stuff moved another kilometer means more impact”)
– the disruptive influence of the interwebs in enabling collaborative consumption (viz The Mesh, AirBnB, GetAround etc.) which will transfom industries as surely as digital has transformed music, video, retail and so much more.
Next time: My predictions for the sustainability top stories of 2012.
(Meanwhile, you might enjoy these additional top stories lists from Andrew Winston, GreenBiz, Sustainable Business Forum, Warren Karlenzig, Environmental Leader, and Technology Forecasters Inc.

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