The Pervasiveness of Sustainability: Three Trends That Matter in 2013

The hunger to know what is ‘trending’ is insatiable.

Twitter notwithstanding, it takes a bit more of a step back to see patterns that are evolving rather than what is trending in the moment. I see three patterns that have been emerging for the last few years and signs of a much bigger place in the consciousness of business next year.

1. Looking Within: Creating Healthier Systems

Businesses are increasingly working across sections of targeted stakeholders, not just to get their input, but to create healthier systems with them. Five years ago Wal-Mart took the decision to reduce its own carbon footprint by collaborating with its elaborate supply chain. Now this is the pattern. Leaders inside businesses are seeing systems they affect and realizing that they can bring change across those systems. If the business is a key player in a field they can now potentially be the player that causes a shift.

For example, Google Food Services wants to change the way we think about food, our relationship with the food we consume and how Google – and our use of its services – impacts outsourcing systemic changesuppliers. Can Google form a ‘united’ front to work on knurly challenges like behavior?

Setting such ambitious aims is a big shift, an exciting trend where the big players see their role in responsibility going far beyond their walls to match up with the challenges ahead.

2. Social Responsibility Becomes Pervasive

Social innovation and responsibility is becoming more transparent and pervasive as a way of being a good business. When I wrote The Responsible Business four years ago, I felt I was standing in an echo chamber listening to myself say that sustainability had two problems that needed to change soon if its intentions were to be achieved.

The first concern I had was that businesses were separating ‘sustainability’ into a distinctive function, which for the most part was isolating who thought about it and increasingly creating fragmented initiatives not systemic enough to really matter in a timely way.

Second, sustainability had people constantly working on creating less harm and not looking at how things worked when we have a healthy, evolving planet and community.

My metaphor: stop beating your wife less and work on a healthier marriage. We’re still nowhere close to thinking like that but the conversation is shifting. I call this way of thinking, “above the line” because it joins with creating healthy systems rather than seeking to get us out of the way and slow down our actions.

The sustainability bookshelves and chat rooms everywhere are now filled with this conversation.

I look forward to a sense of responsibility that starts with strategy for healthy systems and fans out into all the work in a business, not just a department that counts reduced damage.

3. Leaving the Job Search in Search of Entrepreneurial Solutions

More and more high school students and young people are pursuing entrepreneurial ventures and ignoring the traditional job search, embedding responsibility along the way. From how they set up the entrepreneurshipbusiness to how they employ, sell, create and market. They are not starting their careers with a sense of skepticism and instead taking the challenges head on with a clear understanding of sustainability and how they can impact our future.

This trend is the one I am very excited about.

I know that this surge was partially affected by the recession but what was born out of desperate times is now becoming a path of choice. On every continent, from Africa to Europe, Asia and South America, entrepreneurship is becoming part of high school curricula and businesses are becoming sponsors of social enterprise incubators.

As I work with economic development in places like the Finger Lakes regions of New York, I see economic development councils working with schools to enrich their small business offerings and to fund incubators within the schools. Then there is social media, like YouTube, which continues to stream thousands of entrepreneurial courses, many created by youth for youth. I expect to see a flood of new businesses in coming years, but more evidently, a new business culture that values young people exercising personal agency. And it is being advocated far and wide by media.

Taking the sum of these trends together, I am excited about 2013.

With responsibility becoming a question in all our actions and decisions, systems improvement goes beyond the walls of philanthropic ventures to business missions and the rise of a new and expanding generation of entrepreneurs.

What do you see that fits these patterns? Or contradicts them?

This article was originally published on CSRwire
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Carol Sanford
is CEO of InterOctave, Inc., a global consultancy and author of The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success (Jossey Bass).  Carol has been leading major consulting change efforts in both Fortune 500 and new-economy businesses for more than 30 years.