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A Year in Purpose: The Top 10 Trends of 2019

By Porter Novelli
Greta Thunberg and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres

(Purpose trend No. 9 in action: U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres does an Instagram live interview—his first ever—with 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg at the Vienna International Centre in May 2019.)

By Alison DaSilva and Whitney Dailey

2019 will be regarded as the year that corporate purpose truly went mainstream. As the year draws to a close, we look back at so many moments in time that, together, ladder up to a seismic shift in the role of business in society.

We witnessed Gen Z elevate the response to the climate change crisis, CEOs redefine the purpose of a company, ESG dominate shareholder calls, and employees walk out of their places of work over issues that matter to them personally.

To capture the top trends of 2019, we reviewed and analyzed a year’s worth of purpose-driven news, activities, campaigns and announcements. And while there is still work to be done, these signs are showing us that purpose is not just here to stay, but a new normal.

1. Climate urgency takes center stage

The United Nations kicked off 2019 by reporting that we only have 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage from climate change—and companies responded swiftly by accelerating their goals and commitments.

Companies including Ben & Jerry’s*, Badger Balm, Burton and SodaStream closed their doors on September 20 to allow their employees to participate in the Global Climate Strike. And Mars* launched its #PledgeForPlanet initiative to achieve 100 percent renewable energy in its operations by 2040. We also saw 87 companies commit to lead the global push to cap temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius ahead of the U.N. Climate Action Summit in September.

2. CEO activism goes mainstream 

181 CEOs redefined the purpose of a corporation this year with a statement from the Business Roundtable, but this was just one example of CEO engagement and activism.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon entered the gun control debate, and Dick’s Sporting Goods* CEO Ed Stack revealed the company destroyed $5 million worth of guns it had agreed to take off shelves. In the realm of health and gender, in 2019, more than 180 CEOs opposed state efforts to restrict reproductive rights including the heads of Square, Diane von Furstenberg, Ben & Jerry’s* and Bloomberg.

3. ESG extends beyond wall street

The importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics reached record highs in 2019 thanks to increased interest from investors.

According to Deloitte research published this year, more than 80 percent of mainstream investors now rely upon ESG disclosures to make decisions. Major ratings organization S&P Global Ratings also announced that it will include ESG sections within corporate credit rating reports.

As investment guided by ESG criteria continues to rise to $20 trillion in assets under management around the globe—comprising a quarter of all professionally managed investments—investors have become critical influencers in accelerating responsible business practices.

4. Gender identity opens opportunities for expression

As consumers look to align themselves with companies with values similar to their own, organizations are looking to take a more inclusive approach to gender identity and expression.

Mastercard launched True Name, a card that allows card owners to use their chosen or true names without requiring a legal name change to alleviate challenges for transgender or non-binary customers. Meanwhile, Mattel embraced inclusivity when it launched what it calls the world’s first line of gender-neutral dolls.

We also saw a host of companies announce more progressive employee benefits for individuals identifying as transgender or non-binary. And this spring, corporate big-hitters like Hilton, Sony and Viacom joined a Los Angeles area transgender job fair, showing their support for a community that can often face discrimination in the job search process. 

5. Frictionless giving gains traction

As technology becomes more embedded in our everyday lives, giving to organizations in-the-moment has become even easier.

Earlier this year, Google announced voice-controlled donations can now be made through Google Assistant on any Google-powered digital device by giving the command. Meanwhile, Instagram unveiled a new donation sticker as part of Instagram Stories, allowing individuals to donate immediately after viewing compelling content. And as of September, Facebook had reached $2 billion worth of donations through fundraisers on the platform. 

6. Fashion accelerates sustainability

With research pointing to over half (52 percent) of consumers in the U.S. and U.K. demanding clothing retailers become more sustainable, the fashion world continues to respond in spades.

Prada committed to phase out virgin nylon by 2021, and Zara pledged to make all of its clothing from 100 percent sustainable fabrics by 2025. In an effort to help consumers make more sustainable shopping decisions, Urban Outfitters announced a clothing rental subscription, and Nordstrom launched an online shopping category called “sustainable style.” 

7. Equity advances the D&I conversation

While diversity and inclusion has been gaining importance for many years, 2019 marked the year equity gained a seat at the table. Equity represents fair access and advancement for all people, while also striving to eliminate barriers to full participation of some groups.

Acknowledging a gap in opportunities, Hennessy recently launched the Hennessy Fellows program in partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. The program welcomed 10 MBA students from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to engage with executive leaders at Hennessy and other major corporations, forming important relationships with senior leaders and creating champions for career progression. 

8. Plastics take precedence

Plastics took center stage in 2019. In fact, we’d be hard pressed to find a company that hasn’t made a major plastics commitment this year. And companies are getting creative in solving for plastic waste: Tesco is testing a plastic-free produce aisle, Corona is accepting trash plastic as payment for beer, and Budweiser created a soccer field in Sochi, Russia, made entirely of recycled plastic cups collected after the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

9. Youth leads a movement

Generation Z came on the scene en force in 2019. And for proof Gen Z activists are becoming household names, look no further than GretaEmma or Zendaya. This may not come as a surprise when research reveals that 87 percent of Gen Zers are inspired when they see their peers take a stand on issues.

Savvy organizations are tapping into the power and voice of these young leaders. Case in point: Arbor Day Foundation formed an unlikely partnership with YouTube celeb Mr. Beast to celebrate his reaching 20 million subscribers by raising $20 million to plant 20 million trees by January 1, 2020. 

10. Employee activism increases

A trend that gained traction in 2018, employee activism is now firmly entrenched in the corporate responsibility purview. This year we saw Walmart employees stage a 15-minute walkout and moment of silence to share their views on the sale of guns in stores, Wayfair employees take to the streets in protest of furniture sold to detention centers holding migrant children, and a worldwide walkout from Amazon to push the company toward stronger environmental practices.

While not all employers heeded the demands, these moments in time brought a major spotlight to employee grievances and proved that individuals will no longer check their values at the workplace door.

The bottom line: Purpose is the new normal

Through taking stock of 2019, it’s clear that the building blocks are in place for a more equitable, impactful and brighter future. The time is now, and momentum is on our side. We look forward to a new year with bolder announcements and more innovative advancements to drive our industry forward.

*Porter Novelli/Cone client

About Alison DaSilva: As executive vice president and lead of Porter Novelli’s award-winning Corporate Social Responsibility group, Alison’s twenty five years of experience spans strategic planning and goal setting, reporting, social impact, employee engagement, public/private partnerships, stakeholder engagement, reporting and sustainability communications. Her passion is grounded in uncovering insights that help organizations create breakthrough campaigns that deliver a business, brand and societal return.

About Whitney Dailey: Whitney Dailey guides agency brand strategy, marketing and thought leadership as Vice President, Marketing/Research & Insights at Porter Novelli. With a strong background in Purpose, CSR and social impact issues, Whitney positions the agency for growth while furthering its legacy as a pioneer in Purpose communications

Image credits: UNIS Vienna and appaIoosa via Flickr

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Porter Novelli is a global purpose communication consultancy born from the idea that the art of communication can advance society.

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