Top 12 Business Sustainability Issues and Topics

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Discover 12 business sustainability issues for 2020, identified by members of our network.

Over 35,000 people follow the Network for Business Sustainability – people dedicated to making business more sustainable. You work in different countries, industries, and sectors. You have a unique perspective on sustainability challenges.

To start the conversation, we’ve asked members of NBS’s advisory committees to share their 2020 priorities and resources they’ve found useful.

Top 12 Sustainability Issues in 2020

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1.Poverty and youth unemployment

In emerging and developing markets like Nigeria, poverty and youth unemployment should gain traction. That means looking at issues like job creation and integration of the underserved in businesses’ target market and supply chain.

Climate change and circular economy will be the most important sustainability issues generally, especially for multinational companies.

By Oreva Atanya, Sustainability Practitioner, Researcher and Project Manager at Lagos Business School, Nigeria.

Recommended resource: Lagos Business School Sustainability Center and Ford Foundation. 2019. Building youth leadership capacity in nonprofit management: Project impact report.


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2. Advancing the circular economy

I see the circular economy as our best path to sustainability. Why? Because globally, we face limited physical resources. This is true in terms of the resources we draw on (e.g. food, water, oil, wood) and our options for disposing of waste (e.g. via land, air and water).

The circular economy means that waste becomes a resource input. Closing the circle of resource supply and disposal lets us stop depleting virgin resources and contributing to pollution. Carbon emissions, plastics pollution, water quality concerns, etc. can be an issue of the past.

Building the circular economy requires innovative new products and collaboration across sectors. That’s the challenge for 2020.

By Tima Bansal, Executive Director, Network for Business Sustainability, Canada.

Recommended resource: Gualandris, J., Edmonds, F., & Da Ponte, M. 2019. How sustainable and circular procurement can take off. Network for Business Sustainability.


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3. Government action

We are nowhere near the scale and pace of change needed. We have made progress towards the SDGs, but we are not on track to meet them by the 2030 deadline.

Without clear signals from government, companies have difficulty making the business case for developing projects to support the SDGs. Those policy signals are missing in Canada and globally. In a survey of 1000 CEOS, 42 per cent said that political uncertainty is reducing or stalling their sustainability efforts.

Government plays a critical role in creating a framework that demands action from businesses in order to see system-wide change. But today, government is struggling to determine how to get businesses to do better. For example, establishing a level playing field is difficult when rules and regulations are set per country and sometimes even per industry, but the market is global.

We need good practices of sector collaboration and public-private partnership around SDGs implementation to fill the gap.

By Ayman Chowdhury head of Secretariat at Global Compact Network Canada, Canada.

Recommended resource: United Nations Global Compact et al. 2018. The ambition loop: How business and government can advance policies that fast track zero-carbon economic growth.


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4. Climate change – performance monitoring

We are already dealing with impacts from the climate crisis. With each year that passes, we also lose time to prevent a tipping point.

We need information on how companies and countries are performing regarding reduction of GHG emissions and other actions to fight climate change. If we could see the performance reported in a standardized way, monthly, we would have more insights on priority areas – for companies, governments, associations, etc.

By Giulia Cricenti, Sustainability Consultant and Project Coordinator at BSD Consulting, Brazil.

Recommended resource: The Guardian

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5. Holistic thinking and action

The most critical issue for business is not so much a single issue, but the complexity and interaction between different sustainability issues.

A single-minded focus on climate change is inadequate. Climate change is connected to everything from the way our economy operates to the way our society is organized.

Companies and others need to tackle sustainability issues in a more integrated manner. Agenda 2030 and the 17 UN SDGs are a helpful framework, but many people forget that these goals can only be achieved in combination. Policy-makers and businesses have to recognise interactions, trade-offs and co-benefits between goals. That’s a very tough task: breaking through the silo mentality requires knowledge and skills that few have. Some call the more holistic approach “nexus” or “integrated thinking.”

By Frederik Dahlmann associate Professor at Warwick Business School, United Kingdom.

Recommended resource: Stafford-Smith, M., et al. 2017. Integration: the key to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability Science, 12(6), 911-919.


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6. Climate change – meaningful disclosures

2020 will be the most crucial year for climate change action and transparent disclosure is going to be key.

As many know: The Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) was set up in 2015 to develop voluntary, consistent climate-related financial risk disclosures for use by private business. New Zealand (NZ) may make this kind of reporting mandatory. But, we need to figure out how to do this effectively and consistently.

The NZ government suggests that adoption of the TCFD framework will allow comparison within and across sectors. But some early adopters (e.g. electricity utilities) have chosen different ways to communicate and report “compliance” using that same framework.

I’d like to know about good examples of sectoral collaboration around TCFD, or any other climate related reporting framework.

By Martin Fryer, Sustainability Manager at Mercury Energy, New Zealand.

Recommended resource: Climate Disclosure Standards Board. 2019. TCFD Good Practice Handbook.


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7. Social justice in climate transition

I am increasingly concerned that the focus on climate change is outstripping our ability to manage a more holistic, human-centered, socially just approach. The factors playing into this include the incredibly divisive nature and oppositional tenor of the discussion; the lack of a middle ground where people with opposing views can come together to learn from each other; the sense of fear that is taking hold.

I worry that in our drive to focus on the clear need to address climate change, we are not spending enough time deeply considering how to achieve this in a socially just manner. If we fail to transition workers, for example, simply expecting that they will retrain into the new energy technologies, we risk serious misalignment of labour skills and supply vs demand.. The result may be so damaging to our social fabric that even those nations with well-developed social programs may not be able to cope with the global instability.

My question, then, is how as businesses do we anticipate and mitigate the issues, so that we support the efforts of all sectors – business, government, civil society, academia, etc. – to work towards a socially just transition to an economy based on low or no carbon.

By Yvonne Jeffery, Manager of Sustainability, Community Investment and Communications at Vermilion Energy, Canada

Recommended resource: The Shared Value Initiative addresses some of the issues that feed into this.


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8. Impacts of action on SDGs

In the sustainability work that I do, as well as our initiatives with clients, a lot of the emphasis is on impact measurement and management. But when it comes to the SDGs, companies are often in the early days of thinking about impact. We need to know more about how to measure the impacts of our initiatives, particularly relating to progress on the SDGs.

By Deborah Lucas, Director at Deloitte New Zealand, New Zealand.

Recommended resource: Impact2030 is an initiative that builds knowledge about effectively addressing the SDGs.


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9. Climate change – calling for action

Public advocacy is the key thing at the moment. With Big Fossil in control of the White House, other firms need to counteract that influence by speaking out much more publicly.

By Tom Lyon, Dow Professor of Sustainable Science, Technology and Commerce, University of Michigan, United States.

Recommended resource: InfluenceMap is a UK NGO that works to clarify how large companies are using their lobbying power to block progress on climate policy.


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10. Climate change – decarbonization in oil and gas

Over the past several months, I’ve been developing corporate strategy training for the oil and gas (O&G) sector. In my opinion, one of the most important business sustainability issues for 2020 is decarbonization in the O&G industry. Today, operations in that sector account for 9 per cent of human-made greenhouse gas (GHG emissions), with its fuels creating another 33 per cent for global emissions.

Decarbonizing the sector has exciting potential. That can mean shifting from coal to gas, using renewables and new technologies, and supporting the broader energy transition. I will be watching out for the ‘net-zero GHG emissions by 2050’ pledges at Davos 2020.

By Rana Mustansir, Program and Business Development at Pakistan Institute of Corporate Governance, Pakistan.

Recommended resource: Johnston, R.J., Blakemore, R., & Bell, R. 2020. The role of oil and gas companies in the energy transition. Atlantic Council.


11. Business influencing policy

Tackling sustainability is not just about greening operations. Real change requires building a social movement and pressuring politicians to implement change at scale. So far, corporations are just making nice statements about the need for climate action. They need to advocate for climate policy and educate customers and employees.

By Auden Schendler, Senior Vice President of Sustainability, Aspen Skiing Company, United States.

Recommended resource: Journalist David Roberts blogs about energy and climate change for VOX.


12. Climate change – business leadership

How will business leaders engage in sufficient mitigation and adaptation to avert the collapse of the Canadian economy from runaway climate change? I see 2 challenges:

1) How to package the climate crisis message so that boards and C-suites see business reasons to prepare for climate change and reduce their emissions.

2) How to use public procurement — government purchasing — to galvanize corporate contributions to the SDGs, especially SDG 13: Climate Action. Sustainable procurement can reshape supply chains.

By, Bob Willard, Speaker and Author at Sustainability Advantage, Canada.

Recommended resource: Willis, A., & Keyes, S. 2017. Climate change briefing: Questions directors should ask. Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada (CPA Canada)


Discover also the top 7 business sustainability challenges identified by NBS’s Community

NBS staff asked for your sustainability priorities for 2020. Here are some of the answers we heard.

Last year’s challenges

Curious how this year’s issues compare to last year’s? Check out the challenges that NBS identified as being critical for 2019.

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