Holding Business to Account: Achieving Real Sustainability in 2020 and Beyond

We’ve seen various cases of ‘woke washing’ (as Unilever’s CEO put it) over the past decade – businesses using worthy causes to boost sales, all while failing to truly practise what they preach.

From Pepsi’s infamous ad featuring Kendall Jenner quelling police tensions over a soft drink, to fashion brands using one token plus-size model to profit off the back of body positivity, criticism is rife. As a result, trust in businesses is dwindling.

Businesses need to make real change happen to reflect their corporate social responsibility policies – having grand ideas enshrined on a web page is no good if they aren’t implemented. For CEOs to strengthen trust in their brand, they need to take concrete action. In 2020, we’ll start to see CEOs doing this in one big way: putting sustainability at the top of the agenda.

Sustainability, however, isn’t just about recycling or fair-trade practices, as important as these are. It runs through the entire company, from its supply chain operations, to talent practices, to the physical workspace – or lack thereof. In 2020 and beyond, we will see the shift to sustainable business play out as more and more businesses are held increasingly accountable for how ethical their operations truly are.

Moving from linear to circular supply chains

The 2010s have seen the rise of an ethically-minded consumer movement. No longer is the conversation just about recycling and reusable packaging. Consumers are increasingly looking to the corporate world to help them make an impact on a global scale, from helping them reduce their carbon emissions, to cutting down on plastic filling our oceans.

That’s why in the year ahead, the first fundamental shift we will see is some of the world’s largest companies actively transforming their supply chains from linear to ‘circular’, in response to growing consumer pressure.

In other words, tomorrow’s world will no longer be about an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ production model, but about understanding and being accountable for the entire supply chain. Production will no longer mean, for example, simply making shampoo and shipping it out in a plastic bottle. Moving forward, businesses must take responsibility for where that shampoo bottle ends up, and how it gets there.

If circular talent models are truly able to stick, CEOs and senior leadership must think carefully about how to build sustainability into their employees’ roles.

In 2020, it’s likely that at least one major global CPG strikes up a deal with retailers for ‘refill stations’, allowing consumers the opportunity to get discounts on their shampoo by taking old bottles back to be refilled, drastically cutting plastic waste and reducing carbon emissions. Big moves like this should be led from the very top. But circularity doesn’t just mean returns. In order to achieve real transparency and succeed with sustainability, big companies must take greater responsibility for the front end of their supply chain too. Ethical sourcing and provenance of product is a crucial part of the puzzle in order to truly gain consumers’ trust.

Unlocking agility in HR

The circular supply chain can be applied to any process, with recruitment initiatives being no exception. Ordinarily, the talent process is linear – you interview, hire, onboard, and after a while, the employee leaves. Most businesses don’t even consider the prospect of rehiring previous employees, let alone on a permanent basis.

But all that’s about to change in 2020. With Brexit pressure potentially putting the structure of the workforce in flux, not to mention high-pressured industries like financial services requiring a constant flow of talent, we’ll begin to see forward-thinking CEOs and their HR teams taking a chance on the tried and tested.

Here, circularity means moving from a ‘hire to retire’ to a ‘hire to retire to re-hire’ model. This makes for a more agile organisation which can tap into a previously restricted talent pool, all while allowing for a more efficient process. Previously-known employees can skip the onboarding stage – or at least a large portion of it – freeing up their time to be productive straight away. And this can be sped up even more thanks to technologies such as performance analytics and robotic process automation, which can personalise all necessary onboarding based on the employee’s previous experience. Eliminating the menial tasks associated with onboarding completely new employees also has the additional benefit of freeing up HR’s time to focus on more strategic activities to help the board.

No longer will sustainability be a nice-to-have, wishy-washy idea – and no longer should businesses be failing to practise what they are preaching.

Embracing the Gig Economy

If circular talent models are truly able to stick, CEOs and senior leadership must think carefully about how to build sustainability into their employees’ roles. Flexibility is a cornerstone of sustainable business, giving people the ability to work anywhere, anytime. Typically characterised by the gig economy, in 2020, we’ll begin to see this no longer confined to that of start-up cultures – large corporates will listen and learn in order to build a more agile workforce.

This requires a focus changing mindsets to understand that flexible working is part of the future and it is here to stay. It comes at a pivotal moment, as almost every industry is now facing a major skills shortage. Engaging with the gig economy will allow corporate enterprise to tap into talent pools that are hard to reach: those with caring needs, disabled people, or those outside of major cities. Doing so can allow for a tremendous lasting impact, bringing fresh attitudes and perspectives to the table along with new or forgotten skills, all while closing the skills gap.

CEOs must make conscious decisions to move toward these sustainable talent models, enabling employees to come and go as they please, creating a culture of trust – and ultimately helping to drive the bottom line.

The Trust Economy and beyond

To reach a successful sustainability model, there must be trust between suppliers and corporates, and employers and employees for businesses. Trust will enable transparency, opening up huge possibilities both across circular supply chains and within workplaces. And in turn, transparency will enable greater trust amongst a growing ethically-minded consumer base. This will all become possible with the emergence of the Trust Economy.

To make this a reality, corporate mentalities need to change. This starts with the CEO. In circular supply chains, trust across the whole ecosystem is crucial for sustainability and ethical practices. CEOs and Chief Sustainability Officers must work together closely to actively advance the circular economy, ensuring products are sourced ethically and every worker in the supply chain is fairly treated. Meanwhile, consumers trust businesses who do everything they can to be sustainable, through actions, not just words.

From an employer-employee perspective, a case in point is Microsoft’s recent trialling of a four-day working week in Japan, which actually increased productivity. By measuring outcome rather than by measuring time, they could ensure productivity with purpose – rather than for the sake of it. It also inherently builds a culture of trust and reward between employers and employees to get the job done on their terms, creating a more flexible, sustainable workforce.

Trust can also be instilled by making sustainability concrete. This can be achieved in two ways – by using technology to prove this, as well as through KPIs made visible to stakeholders including shareholders, customers and employees.

Over the next year, we will see a shift to circularity play out in different ways among large businesses across the world. No longer will sustainability be a nice-to-have, wishy-washy idea – and no longer should businesses be failing to practise what they are preaching. Sustainability should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind as we enter the new decade, and, applied to a circular model, this will result in a newfound trust in the way business is led.

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