The Underswell: 2020 Sustainability Roundup + Thoughts on 2021

Our Sustainability Partner, Derek Sabori/The Underswell gives his thoughts on this crazy year that we’ve had, some positive takes from it, and what we can look forward to in the year ahead.

What a mixed bag 2020 has been, right? I don’t know about you, but I came into 2020 thinking it was all good, that THIS was going to be the year. By March, however, it was clear that THIS was going to be THE year; just in a different way.

With that said, there were still lots of interesting things that came about on the sustainability front, so let’s have a look at a few of them:

Commitments from the big ones:

Microsoft announced they’ll be carbon negative by 2030; not neutral, but negative. They pledged to, “remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975” and committed to a $1 billion climate innovation fund. That was big news, especially since we’re getting down to the wire if we are going to follow the recommendations of the IPCC and a keep global warming within the recommended 1.5 degrees threshold. It’s going to take big commitments from the big players, and this was a good start to the year.

In addition to this, the CEO of the world’s largest money manager, BlackRock let the world know that sustainability wasn’t just for the tree huggers (it never really has been though, right!?) and that addressing climate was good for business, and good for investors. Larry Fink’s annual letter to CEOS of major companies said that, “Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects” and that “awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.” Additionally, in a letter to shareholders, he announced a number of initiatives to place sustainability at the center of their investment approach, including: making sustainability integral to portfolio construction and risk management; exiting investments that present a high sustainability-related risk, such as thermal coal producers; launching new investment products that screen fossil fuels; and strengthening their commitment to sustainability and transparency in our investment stewardship activities. A couple of key takeaways: the reshaping of finance, integrating sustainability, and transparency.

We found our focus

Biodiversity seemed to be at the center of it all, becoming, if you ask me, the buzzword of the year. Fashion rallied around it, calling it the priority of the industry, and the business industry as a whole took note. Biodiversity isn’t that far-fetched, and if it’s not a part of your sustainability vernacular, it needs to be. Here’s a little something to keep in mind: Humans rely on natural capital (resources). Natural resources are abundant in healthy ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems are due, namely to strong biodiversity. Therefore, protect biodiversity; protect us; protect our futures.

Products are made in partnership:

If there’s one thing that I saw 2020 unveil and bring to light is that our products aren’t made in a silo, and none of our companies operate that either. 

One of the things I ensure all my clients and students understand well is what I call a life cycle thinking approach (LCTA); which means that for every product, every component, every process, we have to look at it through the lens of the triple bottom line+ (social, environmental economic, and +governance), and across the product’s entire product life cycle (including its value chain), from cradle (raw material extraction) to grave (the product’s end of life). 

So, when COVID hit, and big brands scrambled to put halts on (or cancel altogether) their orders, postpone payments, and more, the rest of the value chain spoke up and the concept of responsible purchasing came front and center. Stories of underrepresented supply chain partners in developing countries struggling to pay some of the poorest workers in the world because of cancellations, highlighted the fact that business wasn’t always being done in a fair way, or in a partnership-focused manner. Factories, farmers and materials makers far back up the value chain, were often left dealing with the fallout on their own, even after years-long business relationships; the feeling was that they had expected more. Even just a dialogue, a plan, some communication would have been appropriate. And yes, these were unprecedented times, but when we can learn to consider the whole, we’ll be better off. 

We are all connected, and especially when it comes to business. None of us really make products or offer services in a vacuum, so let’s pay good attention to the ones who are next in line, supporting the work we do, even when their work is unseen by most. Let’s all see each other.

And so here we are again, end of the year, heading into a new year…do I dare say it again? That THIS will be the year. That THIS will be the really good year where the sustainability-related work we are all doing really picks up speed, drives further into the mainstream, and really proves itself to be the right thing to do. We all know it’s the RIGHT thing to do, but it’s not always the EASIEST thing to do. And that’s the point. What if it were? 

What if 2021 becomes the year where doing the right thing is the easy thing? Sounds too simple right? It’s not though – this takes a complete flip of the current system. If you haven’t read The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken (editor at Project Drawdown and more) and this topic intrigues you, it’s a must read. And you’re going to want to read it twice; trust me.

That said, maybe that idea’s not too far off. We’ll see a new administration, new commitments, new awareness, new urgency… a new year. So yeah, I’m hopeful.

Let’s just keep it simple. Let’s make 2020 the year where doing the right thing (by people, and planet) became common; expected, predictable, almost boring. Imagine just a regular ol’ boring year…yeah, I think that sounds good right now.

Happy New Year!
– Derek (The Underswell)