Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

The ESG Trends You Need to Know About for 2020

By Leon Kaye
ESG Trends

Yes, it’s true, year after year: most of the ESG (environmental, social and governance) predictions made in January for the upcoming year will be off come December. Nevertheless, 2020 may be an easier year to gauge than most.

After all, we have a volatile presidential election coming up here in the U.S. – one that will have just about every superlative description imaginable tagged to it. Employees will continue to make their voices heard on a bevy of social and political issues, and companies will scramble to respond in kind. Plus, many consumer trends are simply unstoppable.

Finally, the fact that many companies have only 366 days (thanks to the leap year, there’s an extra 24 hours!) to meet their 2020 goals means we’re about to embark on one heck of a bumpy ride. Expect a lot of sustainability cans to be kicked down the road.

Healthcare becomes more important to companies’ employee engagement efforts

Another year, another 52 weeks of endless healthcare debate and another dollar – or shall we say dollars, as the chances are your health care premiums have ticked upward in price yet again. Those rising costs, and the stress many workers feel because of this trend, will nudge more employers to become more creative about how they provide healthcare benefits. Watch for more companies to encourage employees to take advantage of mental health care benefits (or finally, start offering them); in addition, keep an eye out for options such as home health care, which is way cheaper, and often more comfortable, than hospital stays. As medical marijuana and CBD become more mainstream and accepted, more HR professionals will become open to figuring out how to include such treatments as benefits, too.

More companies will encourage voting, and give employees time off cast their ballots

Speaking of elections, we’re in for a chaotic primary and election season to launch the 1920s on this side of the pond. During the last midterm cycle, we saw more companies strive to get their employees interested in voting; a few companies, such as Patagonia, have made it a policy to give their employees time off to vote. Keep an eye out for more companies deciding to do the same.

The circular economy will hit a snag

Here’s my Debbie Downer prediction for 2020: circularity will flop. Indeed, the circular economy was a big story during 2019. Unfortunately, this movement faces a huge problem: it’s more story than substance. Yes, there have been countless initiatives, partnerships and goals, but there are several fundamental problems that can make all this talk more hype than reality. First, the cheap cost of fossil fuels gives companies, and consumers, little incentive to change their ways. The plethora of raw materials used to make just about everything from packaging to household goods means we’ll still be consuming linearly, not circularly. And most of us are just not hard-wired to accept that magic R-word: reuse. The many barriers mean the circular economy is more likely to struggle to gain traction instead of scaling up in the coming year.

Meanwhile, China’s ongoing ban of plastic waste imports means there is still too much waste out there for any company or municipality to manage effectively. And piling atop of the single-use plastics problem, the reality that the cheap cost of many products, from clothing to consumer packaged goods (CPG) means there is no incentive for consumers to change. It will take heavy-handed legislation (unlikely due to the surge in populism worldwide) or a massive geopolitical jolt leading to sky-high fossil fuel prices (more likely due to the surge in populism worldwide) to shock companies and citizens into taking action on this front.

Onto food: plant-based seafood will make a splash

If 2019 was the year of plant-based foods – and by that we mean fake meat going mainstream with burgers and tacos – then 2020 will be all about plant-based seafood. Read Sarah Hutcherson’s excellent overview of how 2019 was the foundation of this trend. While we’ll see more effort to ensure transparency and ethics in the global seafood supply chain, the sad reality about our oceans is that we’ll have to turn increasingly to cell-based and in the near term, plant-based imitation fish and shellfish options.

Fancy an organic non-alcoholic drink with that plant-based slider?

Millennials are praised and mocked at the same time for countless trends: on one hand they are applauded for raising awareness of what’s in our food supply – and then we turn around and blame them for killing off old standbys like the Amtrak dining car. But let’s face it, one shift for which we should be thankful is the fact that more of them are shying away from booze – and making the phrase “No thanks, I don’t drink” one that is more accepted than mocked. Global beverage companies will have to respond in kind – so watch for more creative alcohol-free beers, wines and spirits to hit the market . . . with a fair share organic, free trade (and perhaps free range?) choices.

Finally, on governance: shareholders will want more say on board diversity

The news has long been out: boards that are more diverse tend to perform better – largely because you avoid the timeless problem of a posse of old white yes-men agreeing on things with blinders on. And while California’s “quota law” on gender diversity has generated its share of controversy, the stubborn fact companies will face is that shareholders, including those persistent activist investor groups, will be pressuring companies to have boards that look less like the cast of that 1957 classic film, 12 Angry Men.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

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.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye