<< Back

The Top 10 Sustainability Trends to Watch in 2020

Last year, we predicted six sustainability trends that would define 2019. A year later, many of them are still pertinent, such as transparency through data management and sustainability reporting, reduction of plastic pollution (reusable straws, anyone?), increased use of sustainable building materials, and continued social action.

This year, the world is dealing not only with the threat of climate change, but the coronavirus pandemic and political unrest in many countries. Sustainability trends are being largely influenced by these events. Read on for a guide to the top ten sustainability trends to watch in 2020.

1. Reduction of Energy Consumption

Aside from COVID-19 leading to a reduction of energy use globally, reduction of energy consumption is one of the major sustainability trends among many businesses. Electric vehicles are being used in freight transportation, LEED certifications are in demand for many buildings, and LED lighting is becoming the new norm. Legislation in cities like New York and Berkeley, California are implementing requirements for commercial buildings above a certain size to upgrade from CFL and incandescent to LED bulbs, which are equal in price to traditional lighting choices but much more efficient.

2. Changes in Energy Production

With the renewables industry expected to make a comeback post-pandemic, one of the most popular sustainability trends is reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Renewables now make up 11 percent of the energy in the US, proof that investments and improvements to the renewables industry have made an impact. Not only are large-scale solar and wind farms promising, there is a growing trend towards micro-generation of electricity in homes. Additionally, renewable energy is increasingly affordable, enabling businesses and individuals to invest in renewable energy with ease.

3. Demand for Plant-Based Foods Increase Due to Environmental Benefits

Another popular sustainability trend is the plant-based diet. The Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers have earned menu spots at vegan and non-vegan restaurants alike. Veggie meat, tofu, and tempeh are now popular supermarket items, and food delivery app GrubHub released data showing that orders for plant-based and vegan food is at an all-time high. This is due to consumer concern with the meat industry – not only the animal cruelty side, but the environmental impact. In the United States alone, agriculture and forestry accounted for 9.0 percent of 2017 US greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. Meanwhile, 26 percent of land on earth is used for livestock grazing and one-third of arable land is used to produce crops exclusively to feed livestock. Like the renewables industry, the vegan lifestyle is becoming much more affordable, adding to its popularity. Additionally, be on the lookout for the rise of lab-grown meat. Lab-grown meat altering muscle cells in a lab environment for taste, texture, color, and shape, and can be produced within cities near distribution centers.

4. The Fall of Fast Fashion

Today, fast fashion is seen as one of largest polluters in the world. Fast fashion brands like H&M, Forever 21, Fashion Nova, and Urban Outfitters create cheap, machine-made clothing with a short shelf life, both in terms of durability and style. Most of the clothes are not recycled and end up in landfills. As a result, one of the up-and-coming sustainability trends is smaller entrepreneurial brands focused on reducing waste in production. Consumers are more aware than ever of their environmental footprint and are making the shift from fast fashion to thrifting, custom made clothing, and sustainable brands.

5. Companies Make Bold Climate Commitments

As part of the “Business Ambition for 1.5°C — Our Only Future” campaign, 177 companies across sectors are pledging to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and limit average global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Many companies are setting ambitious goals to invest in clean energy and transportation and foster sustainability within their operations and global supply chains. Not only are companies tackling their own emissions, they are driving policy change in their countries and regions.

6. Carbon Negative Gains Popularity

As mentioned above, the push towards zero emissions is one of the year’s major sustainability trends. In 2019, we heard almost daily announcements of net zero initiatives from countries, organizations, and individuals. This year, companies like Microsoft are now committing to removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they emit by the year 2030. Although it is not yet clear how this will be accomplished, experts state that any net zero initiative should start with emission reductions in line with 1.5°C or below 2°C. Not only will companies that commit to carbon zero likely see an upswing in investors, they will set a new standard for future companies.

7. Big Tech Takes on Sustainability

Another of the major sustainability trends is the rise of technology, ranging from physical technologies (wind turbines, photovoltaics, electric vehicles, battery storage, microgrids, and other distributed energy resources), to virtual technologies like artificial intelligence and big data. Such technologies are opening the door for new opportunities and business models that could change the energy and sustainability industry dramatically. The proliferation and affordability of physical technologies mean more end users are likely to add renewables and other grid edge resources to their energy portfolios to achieve greater control and cost certainty, fulfill sustainability goals and commitments and improve resiliency. Similarly, virtual technologies are helping organizations become more sustainable by enabling faster access to better quality information for informed decision making.

8. The Rise of Green Microgrids

Microgrids are one of the leading sustainability trends for various reasons. Microgrids provide access to a secure and reliable power supply for a growing population—even in regions with power scarcity. Growth in the business is also fueled by organizations’ need to ensure grid reliability and resilience. As extreme weather becomes more common due to climate change, electrical interruptions are increasing, and microgrids can create a more resilient infrastructure. Additionally, the declining cost of photovoltaic (PV) and battery storage solutions have made microgrid projects affordable. Green microgrids are not a niche solution anymore. The global launch of numerous successful microgrid projects, like Lidl’s carbon-neutral distribution center in Finland, shows they are gaining popularity in many sectors such as infrastructure, commercial, military, and industrial.

9. Challenges to Capitalism

Capitalism has come under fire in recent years as people question its economic, social, and environmental effectiveness. At their January forum in Davos, the World Economic Forum focused on “stakeholder capitalism,” releasing a manifesto requiring companies to “pay their fair share of taxes, show zero tolerance for corruption, uphold human rights throughout their global supply chains, and advocate for a competitive level playing field”. Nations are attempting to reimagine a healthier planet and society by re-defining ideas of growth and progress. In 2020, individuals, nations, and businesses are voicing the idea that global systems of production and consumption (whether of food, clothing, or other commodities) are damaging to the planet and must include positive impacts beyond profit.

10. Water Conservation Gains Momentum

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risk Report identified water crises as one of the top 5 greatest risks to society over the next decade. The UN predicts that by 2030, the world will see a shortfall in the global water supply as high as 40%. Thus, we can expect to see a greater interest from companies in water efficiency. Companies are gathering information about their water footprint by aligning water definitions across their business, becoming more educated on how water is used in operations and production, and monitoring their water utility bills.

Key Takeaway

In 2020, everyone from investors to companies, nations to individuals are becoming more aware of their carbon footprints and pushing for greater sustainability. The sustainability trends listed above can be expected to impact not only the year but the decade ahead. Companies that embrace these trends are likely to benefit in myriad ways.

For more information on how you can involve your company in sustainability, or learn ways to streamline and standardize your sustainability reporting processes, download our educational piece, Planning Your Company’s Sustainable Future: A Guide to Sustainability Reporting, here.