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Leon Kaye headshot

5 Sustainable Business Predictions for 2018

By Leon Kaye

Predicting the future is a risky undertaking, and of course, many forecasts are usually wrong, which is why there are few, if any, professional soothsayers. Let’s face it: hardly anyone could have predicted some of the biggest sustainable business stories of the past year. For example, in January, many companies do what they do every four years: they sent letters to the new presidential administration, urging the White House to be mindful of challenges including climate change.

Within days, many of those some companies found themselves publicly opposing the new president’s policies. More businesses, which in the past were always held back by legal and communications teams urging restraint, instead become relatively unleashed.

The following are five trends we expect to unfold during 2018. Yes, you could argue we’re playing it safe – like the typical horoscope or fortune teller, these predictions overall are fairly broad. Nevertheless, expect to see many headlines focused on these topics in the coming year, here on 3p and elsewhere.

More brands will keep on taking stands

One prediction will surely become true this year: the political climate in the U.S. will be just as toxic, if not even more so, especially with the mid-term elections coming in November. The shenanigans coming from the White House – and in fairness, the responses of those opposed to President Trump and his policies – will continue to rile up citizens on all sides. If past behavior is an indicator of future actions, expect number 45 to say and do things to endear him even more to his base while infuriating the rest of the country.

Companies and brands will continue to be stuck in the middle, and more will be forced to take a stand. We saw it last summer with the controversy over Charlottesville. Companies including Campbell’s Soup Company had to bite the bullet – while other brands, such as Ben and Jerry’s, have again reminded us that taking a stand on social issues can be a smart business strategy in the long term.

We don’t know what the hot-button issues will be for 2018. But the response of many companies to an array of issues in recent years, from public lands stewardship to immigration to supporting LGBT employees, indicates that more companies, and the executives leading them, will increasingly stand up for social causes. The alternative will be risking their brand reputation and upsetting their stakeholders – who now expect companies to not only do good financially, but socially as well.

More oil companies will invest in renewables

A new administration succeeded in upending environmental rules and dramatically shifted America’s energy priorities; nevertheless, market forces are at work and cannot be denied. And the business community continues to view renewables as more attractive for investment, as they can help companies better manage their energy costs. But it is not just multinational companies and financial institutions that are becoming major players in clean energy investment and deployment.

Watch for more conventional energy companies to take more interest in renewables; after all, there is money to be made. BP, for example, recently purchased a large stake in the solar company Brightsource for $200 million. Investments like that of BP’s make sense: even if the U.S. federal government is focused on fossil fuels, there are still state and local regulations that position renewables as a promising business – and with coal on the fast decline and oil and gas in a three-year price slump, oil and wind power will offer more opportunities for these companies to diversify their holdings.

Hydrogen technology keeps on advancing

Solar and wind power, along with the improved performance of electric vehicles, together dominate the ongoing discussion over how society will shift further away both from petroleum and the internal combustion engine. But as 3p’s Tina Casey has covered extensively, the hydrogen economy is on the rise again, a decade after efforts led by the likes of George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger were largely ridiculed.

Technical advances, more interest from the automakers and various startups are among the boosts hydrogen technology requires to keep pace with the advancement of electric cars. True, EVs offer the advantage that they can be recharged while their owners are at home or work, and they benefit from a more developed refueling infrastructure than hydrogen vehicles. Nevertheless, more fleet managers have noted that hydrogen cars can be refueled in a matter of minutes – and as the technology scales up and becomes more affordable, individual drivers will become more intrigued if the cost of hydrogen becomes more competitive.

As 3p’s Casey noted, transformative change is underway:

"Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles will challenge battery EVs, the fossil fuel whack-a-mole game will continue as natural gas moves out of power generation and into plastics and petrochemicals, algae biofuel will make important strides, and more people will accept the fact that our generation is going to Mars. Stock up on those potatoes now!"

The Circular Economy becomes more mainstream

Time is running out if society is going to come anywhere close to halting the deluge of plastics ending up in the world’s oceans. And we will see more companies moving away from “zero waste” to systems in which waste is not only recycled, but can be upcycled into a more robust revenue generator. Last month, Dell announced the launch of what it said is the world’s first ocean plastics supply chain: look for more companies to follow the tech giant’s lead. Brands cannot just say they are eliminating waste; more consumers will hold them accountable for preventing garbage from outnumbering fish in oceans.

Water scarcity solutions move to the forefront

California is the canary in the coal mine once again. After a very wet 2016-2017 winter marked by generous rainfall and a massive snowpack - to the point that some exasperated talking heads were aghast that much of it flowed to where water naturally ends up (the ocean) - so far it looks as if the Golden State will be in for long, bitter and dry winter. Of course, other regions of the world are also suffering from drought, which behooves companies to do even more across their global supply chains.

Many companies would argue they have become mindful of this most precious resource: “Water stewardship” has long been in the lexicon of many corporate social responsibility agendas. But expect more companies to embed “resilience” into their strategies, as it is not enough for businesses to become more water efficient. The stubborn truth is that companies are going to have to figure out how to become nimbler in the event of a long drought – or relaunch their operations after an extreme weather event such as a hurricane or wildfire, both examples of disruptions that can immediately cut critical water supplies to companies. More companies will be forced to explain their stakeholders not how can they reduce water consumption by 10 or 20 percent, but how they can become part of a more integrated plan to help communities, and even countries, secure safe and secure access to water.

Image credit: David Geitgey Sierralupe/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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