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Top Corporate Sustainability Trends To Watch In 2012

Recent events and trends are setting the stage for significant shifts in sustainability practices for 2012.

As sustainability practices continue to mature, recent events and trends have set the stage for significant shifts in 2012.

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While corporate sustainability efforts traditionally have
been motivated by public relations, pressures are coming from
other stakeholders more and more. Investors are turning up the heat as they recognize that
sustainability is important to companies’ economic viability.

Shareholder
pressure on corporate accountability was the fastest-growing motivator for
sustainability initiatives in Brighter Planet’s recent
study
(PDF), up 10 percentage points in 2011 over 2009. Ernst & Young recently
found
(PDF) a 40% year-over-year growth rate in sustainability shareholder
resolutions and predicted that fully half of all shareholder resolutions this
year will be sustainability-related.

The recent reversal by Facebook to use renewable energy
instead of coal-burning electricity for data centers was prompted by
Greenpeace’s two-year Internet campaign. Environmentalists’ evolving
approach
is aimed at energizing grass roots interest via social media and
motivating action via local concerns about jobs and health, rather than polar
bears. 

As these measures
continue to gain ground, expect corporate sustainability programs to shift from
the public-focused green washing of years past toward more robust risk
management and environmentally conscious operations.

Indirect Emissions Management Takes Hold

Corporate sustainability efforts have traditionally focused
on an organization’s direct impacts–the footprints of company-owned buildings
and vehicles. But signs point to 2012 as the breakthrough year for indirect
“scope 3” impacts as well: the sustainability of corporate supply chains,
business travel, waste, and procurement.

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In 2011, the Carbon Disclosure Project reported a 20% increase (PDF) in indirect emissions reporting at leading
companies. That’s
a big deal
, because we know that these indirect emissions comprise upwards
of 80% of a typical company’s environmental impact. The World Resources
Institute, the de facto authority on corporate sustainability reporting
standards, recently released its first new corporate
standard
in years that details guidelines for scope 3 supply chain carbon
reporting.

The new standard
signals greater consensus on indirect emissions accounting, and coupled with
the sheer magnitude of indirect emissions, paves the way for more widespread
management of impacts.
 

Green Employee Engagement Proliferates

The idea that enlisting staff in sustainability efforts is an effective way to achieve environmental and social goals, as well as to improve recruitment,
retention, and the bottom line
isn’t brand new. But after field testing at leading organizations in recent
years, it’s starting to gain a foothold at mainstream companies. A recent
sustainability study by Green Research found that 80% of major corporations are
planning
to invest significantly
in employee engagement in 2012.

The National Environmental Education Foundation recently
released a major
report
on employee engagement including case studies and best practices.
And Brighter Planet’s survey
report
recently revealed that as engagement programs proliferate, the most
successful take a data-driven approach, focus on emerging environmental issues,
and make heavy use of social media.

These new employee
engagement best practices and industry metrics will unleash people power to
deliver change in sustainability performance in 2012.

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Water Risks Becoming a New Reality

This past year, two of the most prominent organizations at
the center of corporate climate change action did something that on the surface seemed counterintuitive. Ceres
and the Carbon Disclosure Project
both independently expanded their carbon emissions platforms to include water
impacts.

While water initiatives have long been associated with population
growth and environmental contamination, this move by climate-focused
organizations signals a tectonic shift in the corporate sustainability world
from prevention toward adaptation.

A focus on carbon emissions is an attempt to avert the
causes of climate change and reduce energy costs. A focus on water use is an
admission that climate change is our new reality and it’s time to start managing
its effects. The material risks associated with increased droughts and flooding
will be among the most poignant effects of climate change.

Don’t expect corporate
carbon management to disappear, but do expect a major increase in attention to
companies’ management of water risks and other aspects of climate adaptation.

Big Data Analysis Performs

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As the volume of enterprise data skyrockets, an industry is
growing up around using this flood of information to help companies operate
more efficiently and sustainably. Companies increasingly will be deploying
sophisticated software as a key component of their sustainability strategy.

Demand for corporate emissions management software is
booming. Groom Energy predicts the market will
increase
(PDF) 300% this year, while Pike Research says global expenditure for
carbon accounting software and carbon management services is expected
to grow
 from
US$705 million in 2010 to US$5.7 billion by 2017.

As application
inter-operability and cloud computing become new IT standards, expect
sustainability applications that harness big data by integrating with existing
business systems to become commonplace.

[Image: Flickr user JD Hancock]

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