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A Year in Purpose: The Top 10 Trends of 2018

Whitney Dailey headshotWords by Whitney Dailey
Leadership & Transparency
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While 2017 was the year companies stood up for social justice issues, 2018 will be regarded as the year companies took action. Supporting social justice issues became mainstream this year as employees turned into activists demanding change within their own companies and businesses joined growing social movements – lending support to grassroots efforts like #TIMESUP and March for Our Lives. In 2018, we saw investors making their voices – and demands – heard and major companies making such bold commitments that the ripple effect may advance the sustainability progress of entire industries.

As the year draws to a close, Cone evaluated a year’s worth of purpose-driven news, activities, campaigns and announcements to bring you the top 10 trends of 2018:


  1. Mainstreaming social justice: While more companies have been addressing social justice issues over the past few years, this year we saw mainstream companies go bigger and bolder with their support. No longer relegated to companies like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, this year we saw Nike choose Colin Kaepernick (to the chagrin of some) as the face of 30th anniversary campaign for “Just Do It,” Levi Strauss’ CEO take sides on gun control and Dick’s Sporting Goods enter the fray as the new champion of gun control advocates.

  2. Applying ads to change assumptions: The advertising industry came together in 2017 to form the global Unstereotype Alliance to leverage the power of advertising to change perceptions. Now we’re seeing those efforts gain traction. Gap won praise for its ad aimed at “normalizing breastfeeding,” while Apple celebrated marriage equality in Australia with an ad sharing same-sex marriage moments. Barbie also took a lead in educating parents about the “Dream Gap” through a powerful video showing how young girls begin to develop limiting self-beliefs as early as age 5.

  3. Employee activism on the rise: As hot-button issues and the movements surrounding them become ever-more pervasive, employees are starting to take a microscope to the operations and actions of their own employers. Nike faced a lawsuit from four female employees over gender discrimination, while Google employees took to the streets in a protest over the company’s handling of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, Deloitte employees took issue with the company’s consulting contract for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the wake of the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

  4. Using business to encourage political activism: Although it was previously the norm for business to stay out of politics, recently we’ve seen an influx of brands entering the political fray – even going so far as to sue the President. In 2018, we saw more companies use their business as a platform for political activism for their employees and consumers. Eileen Fisher gave employees time off to call legislators about immigration on World Refugee Day and TOMS’ latest gun violence prevention effort included a template for consumers to send a postcard to their legislators demanding universal background checks for gun purchases. This year Patagonia launched Action Works as a way for individuals to take part in environmental activism.

  5. Accessibility gets accelerated: As we continue to celebrate diversity and inclusivity, more companies are ensuring their products and services can be enjoyed by all – regardless of disability. Rice Krispies Treats developed Braille stickers with uplifting phrases for parents to stick on their visually impaired children’s lunches and Microsoft’s Xbox designed a new adaptive controller complete with adaptive packaging to create a more inclusive gaming experience from purchase to play. On World Autism Awareness Day this year, the NBA partnered with nonprofit KultureCity to launch the world’s first sensory-inclusive retail store.

  6. Game-changing industry leadership: With the newest climate reports calling for urgent action, some large brands are stepping up, making some game-changing – and industry-shifting – moves. Both Starbucks and Corona made commitments that could shift the trajectory of their industries. Starbucks set the precedent for competitors and partners alike with a commitment to eliminate single use straws from its 28,000 stores, and Corona created a six pack ring made of biodegradable, plant-based fibers and byproducts that could make plastic rings a thing of the past. Danone North America hit a major milestone this year, becoming the world’s largest B Corp, proving that size and shareholders aren’t a barrier to having a dual mission of driving growth and positive societal impact. But as Danone NA’s CEO Mariano Lozano cites, it hopes to become second to another company soon.

  7. Radical transparency catches on: Although transparency is certainly nothing new, in 2018 we saw companies take a more aggressive approach to bringing consumers and other stakeholders into the fold. Marks & Spencer became the first supermarket chain in the U.K. to publish details of its use of antibiotics in the farm supply chain in order to encourage its competitors to share similar information and ultimately reduce antibiotics overall. Within hours of the announcement, competitor Waitrose announced it would do the same. Other companies took a less serious approach to transparency, using humor as a means to break down complex subjects, such as Absolut’s “The Vodka with Nothing to Hide” campaign. Outdoor apparel brand Icebreaker showed it had nothing to hide with its “Transparency Report,” aiming to bring readers behinds the scenes.

  8. Investors kick up expectations: BlackRock CEO Larry Fink kicked off 2018 with a letter that firmly cemented purpose as an investor expectation, and since that pivotal moment, we’ve seen more investors use their power to force the hands of companies to address social and environmental issues. As a result of activist investor pressure, Shell made an announcement that it will link executive pay to Shell’s carbon footprint. Meanwhile, hedge fund JANA Partners and public pension fund CALSTRS made their voices heard in an open letter to Apple’s board of directors urging Apple to consider the effects of childhood addiction to smartphones.

  9. Plastic becomes sustainability rallying cry: When National Geographic launched its “Planet or Plastic” campaign with an image of a plastic bag resembling an iceberg as the June cover image, it captured everyone’s attention. National Geographic not only brought the global plastic crisis to the forefront of its consumer experience, but also committed to reduce its own plastic footprint by first saving more than 2.5 million single-use plastic bags every month by switching to paper wrapping for its print editions. Other brands are also making major plastic-eschewing commitments. Ethical retailer Everlane committed to no new plastic in its supply chain by 2021, while Ryanair is making a pledge to become “plastic free” on all flights by 2023.

  10. Companies support social movements: As social movements like March Four Our Lives and the Women’s March continue to gain traction, we saw companies explore how to apply their expertise and assets to support these grassroots efforts. Early in 2018, a slew of brands supported the teens behind March for Our Lives by providing free rides to the march (Lyft), financial support (Gucci) and even free lunches (ThinkFoodGroup and Eatwell). Fiji Water and eBay have both created campaigns to celebrate and support the #TimesUp movement and TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund. Ben & Jerry’s also lent its support to organizations on the front lines of “peaceful resistance” such as the Women’s March with its PeCan Resist flavor.

As we head into 2019, we see a future surging with possibility for leadership in purpose. We look forward to seeing how companies are using their voice, scale, business assets and people to take action and driving progress in even bigger and bolder ways.

Image credit: Cone

Whitney Dailey headshotWhitney Dailey

Whitney Dailey is Vice President of Marketing, Research and Insights at Cone.

Read more stories by Whitney Dailey