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5 Reasons to Be Optimistic about Sustainability in 2014

This is the time of the year when you see endless summaries of 2013. The ones about sustainability can usually be characterized as a bag of mixed news, filled with both good and bad news from the past year.

And it can be quite depressing, right? After all, mixed news means that at best we move forward in tiny steps when it comes to sustainability, while we need to be running as fast as we can.

Nevertheless, I think there’s no room for depression. First, it doesn’t really help get you anywhere. Second, looking carefully at the trends that shaped 2013 you see that there are also some good reasons to be optimistic, even if you’re into systematic changes, not just incremental ones. And no, this is not about choice editing and ignoring the bad news, but about identifying which sustainability trends become dominant and which ones are about to vanish.

So looking back at 2013 here are five trends that should keep you optimistic about sustainability in 2014:

1. Local is the new black – One of the findings in IBM’s annual “5 in 5″ predictions report, which predicts how innovations that will change our lives in the next five years, is that buying local will beat online. “…Over the next five years, local stores and shops will flip the javascript by giving us an immersive, mixed real and virtual experience. And being local will become increasingly important as shoppers demand the instant gratification of their purchases.”

We can already see the first signs of this convergence of user-friendly technology platforms with local business activity in services like Good Eggs, an online version of your local farmers market, or Farmigo, which enhances the capabilities of a traditional CSA. The trend is also an important element driving local-based sharing economy services like YerdleRelayRides or ParkAtMyHouse.

Yet, local is the new black not just because local shopping and sharing are becoming more sophisticated and convenient, but also because this is the level where we see most progressive action taking place to address important challenges, from local communities in Colorado voting to ban fracking to cities significantly raising their minimum wage to New York City council voting last week to require composting at large restaurants in the city. So, go local!

2.  More sunlight – “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” Justice Louis Brandies famously wrote in 1914.

In 2013 we had plenty of sunlight. Companies and organizations learned time and again that we’re at the age where almost nothing can stay in the dark. I guess you don’t have to be a futurist to realize this trend will only get stronger – the power of the Internet, mobile technology and social media will make it increasingly impossible to hide skeletons in the closet.

In 2014 I expect companies to continue learning the lesson that they’re no more in charge of their level of transparency. The effort they put into thinking about what to include and what not to include in their sustainability report is quite meaningless. If businesses have issues such as poor working conditions in their supply chain, toxic waste dumping or corporate tax avoidance, they need to deal with them sooner than later. Hiding them is no longer an option.

3. Upping the game – The sustainable business world is getting more sophisticated. In 2013 you could see it on every piece of the sustainability puzzle, including innovationdesignsystems thinkingchanging consumer behaviornatural resources valuationemployee engagementsustainability reporting, and materiality to name a few.

Overall, this is good news because to win, sustainability professionals have to be at the top of the game. We might not be there yet but if you look at the issues mentioned above and compare where we stand now to where we were even just three or five years ago you will be pleasantly surprised at the progress made in such a short time. I’m hopeful to see more of it next year.

4. Human power – While we tend to think of people in terms of ‘problem’ (population growth, overconsumption) and focus on events like Black Friday to justify this connection, there’s a growing school of thought looking at people as the ‘solution’ as well.

Why is it important? Because the way we frame people will eventually determine the way we act, and arming ourselves with a positive approach is a powerful way to drive positive change, as renowned international design thinker Ezio Manzini explains in the context of social innovation:

“…Social resource is probably the most abundant one. So again, looking at it in a positive way, if we say we’re 7 billion, 9 billion, 10 billion, we can say this is the problem – we have too many. OK, it’s a problem. But at the same time the people…are intelligent. The people could be creative, so we have to look in a different way. We have 7 billion people and tomorrow 9 billion of intelligent entities that should be challenged. And of course the system could make the people take the stupid part, the lazy part of the people, or can try to empower the positive side of these billions of people. So the challenge of social innovation and design for social innovation is exactly this one – to help catalyze the potential in terms of creativity of all this quantity of people and to create a sustainable world.”

5. Understanding how we’re wired – Even with all the empathy in the world for human beings, we need a better understanding of how we’re wired in order to get us in the right direction. Luckily, we’re beginning to make some progress here with the help of behavioral economics with more companies and governments listening carefully to advice from behavioral economists like Dan Ariely and Richard Thaler about the flaws of human nature and how to overcome these obstacles with relatively simple yet powerful tools like smart choice architecture or reward substitution.

The premise of these tactics is that we can get people to behave in the right way even if not always from the right reasons. Hopefully we’ll see more of this in 2014. Happy New Year!

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.



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