Last year will go down as one the most divisive years in modern history. Humanity unwillingly-willingly shuffled the deck and decided to play a new game. Centered around topical politics and short-term economic recovery in 2020, sustainability missed an opportunity to go full mainstream. But there is reason to be hopeful.

Busy? Try the speed read.

The scoop: Sustainability in 2020 was about transition. Let’s make this decade about change (not the World Economic Forum kind… the ordinary people kind).

Top sustainability trends in 2020:

  1. Economics merge with environment
    • Rise of ESG superfunds
    • Corporate-social sustainability skyrockets
    • Individual sustainable investing spikes
  2. Climate awareness goes mainstream
    • Data showed most Americans now concerned about environmental issues.
    • Climate entered national politics.
    • Animals gained more rights – backed by science as much as emotion.
  3. Climate community can’t stop fighting with itself. Here are different type of activists:
    • The optimist “Don’t worry, science & tech will get us out of this mess!”
    • The concerned consumer “How can we blame corporations if we keep buying their products??”
    • The concerned citizen “The problem isn’t with consumers, it’s with citizens. You need to vote to make real change!”
    • The institutionalist “It doesn’t matter what individuals do, it’s governments and corporations that are to blame.”
    • The doomsday-er “We are screwed no matter what, Kathy. Start preparing for the next Ice Age.”
    • The compromiser “I think Biden made good cabinet choices for climate.”
    • The radicalist “If you drive a gas car, I realistically can’t spend Thanksgiving with you.”

Bottom line: 2020 was a mixed year for sustainability, but we are bullish long-term.

Dig deeper → 7 min

Top sustainability trends in 2020

Health, economy, and politics merge w/ environment

My prediction remains that COVID’s legacy will 𝗻𝗼𝘁 be about health, it will be economic. And it will show the world how environment coincides with economy.

Sure, politicians and scientists were the ones who shut down society. It wasn’t the environment. But it was a wake-up call (that happens every 10-20 years) that in a globalized society, some things are out of our control.

These ‘things’ can sometimes be destructive. The environment is one of those things.

Here were my predictions for COVID-19’s legacy (from March 2020):

1) Fewer businesses long-term.

Big biz goes ↑ Mom-and-Pop goes ↓

The majority of companies that are failing right now have less than 50 employees. The shops that survive are the ones with a big enough purse to withstand the blow.

How many SMB’s will be left when this is all said and done?

2) Going off 1, #Inequality will be worse than ever.

The people who are losing their business, their job, their savings? History shows that most of them will be pushed down the social ladder.

3) The use of cash will further decline as digital payment solutions continue to surge.

Cash is dirty, inefficient and seemingly antiquated. This might be the first talking-point for the world to break-up with cash.

𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝘀𝗶𝗹𝘃𝗲𝗿 𝗹𝗶𝗻𝗶𝗻𝗴? Opportunity. We might not be there yet, but this is starting to look more and more like 2007-8 every day. We can break 1 and 2 by learning from the past.

Cash, more specifically the ability to make an anonymous transaction, is a necessary tenant of a free society. Cryptos hope to serve that purpose, but the internet connection needed to transact makes it anything but decentralized. Cash will still have a purpose for the time-being. But as time moves on, internet access may become a fundamental right.

This ties to the relationship between social impact and economics. Like the way vaccine news carry the stock market today, the public’s perception of climate may one day move with economic trends.

Impact of COVID going forward

I know I wasn’t the only voice on the internet thinking cashless society and inequality in mid-March. Still, these predictions are aging well… for better or for worse.

265 million are now at risk of starvation due to the *policy response* to COVID-19.

I think most compelling is the idea that COVID won’t last forever. If you behave like it’s the end of the world, the folks who were quietly planning for the future will pass you.

The conversation over whether the COVID crisis is more about health or politics-economics is trivial. What really matters is that institutions across the board are re-identifying themselves in ways that prioritize environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals for the first time.

Is this trend of corporate do-good mere virtue signaling or will it have a real impact?

That is my main concern for sustainability going forward. The idea that many corporations could care less about lush forests and care more about cutting corners that satisfy stakeholders.

If we can set up a pretty presentation with goals for 2030 they’ll keep buying our products. But as I wrote about in my sustainable small business guide, consumers are getting smarter. The golden age of greenwashing is fading as social media matures and makes it easier to call BS.

In 2021 and beyond, as ESG superfunds and sustainability start-ups become the norm, business watchdogs and regulators will become increasingly critical to ensure stability. No body needs another dotcom crash.

More sustainable investing

Visual Capitalist
As I wrote in April 2020:

#sustainability was gaining serious traction in the investing world before the outbreak. So much so, that regulators are now concerned that slapping a #sustainable label on a fund looks a lot like slapping a dotcom label back in 2000.

Now we’re at a standstill. Yes, Mother Nature is getting a break, but that’s temporary. In the endless search for innovative solutions to environmental issues, can we afford to lose a year? My #thursdaythoughts:

I think the real question becomes whether our ‘back to normal’ equates to a global ramp-up of production to unprecedented levels. If playing economic catch-up means prioritizing output over efficiency, then we don’t just lose one year, we set ourselves back ten.

The virus showed us yet another example of the fragility of our system. If doing social good is excluded from your long-term business plan, you don’t have a long-term plan. Some of the greatest minds in finance – Larry Fink David M. Solomon – are telling us ‘climate risk is investment risk’.

Run with early adapters or get lost in the late majority.

You can learn more about sustainable investing here.

Rise of climate, animal awareness

Most Americans recognize climate change and want the government to do more to help.

Maybe it’s activism, maybe it’s more media coverage, maybe it’s the younger generations maturing, maybe it’s the wildfires, maybe it’s louder scientific voices… the bottom line is more people are conscious of climate. Even in a year dominated by public health hysteria.

Animal rights are more mainstream now too. That’s a big trend for sustainability in 2020.

sustainability in 2020 demonstrated by animal welfare laws by country

I firmly believe that sustainability starts with the way we treat animals. <– more thoughts on animal stuff. Here’s why.

Ethologists like Jonathan Balcombe, author of “What A Fish Knows”, are slowly debunking myths about animal intelligence. Man’s outdated perceptions of our underwater and in-the-forest cousins are coming to light as hard science meets soft PETA.

Animals are sentient beings. It’s not a romance novel, it’s the world we live in. Animals experience a wide range of emotions. The Pythagoreans believed that animals experience the same range of emotions as humans.

And the science increasingly shows compelling evidence that for many animals, that may be true. That includes fear, joy, happiness, shame, embarrassment, resentment, jealousy, rage, anger, love…

Today, most advanced nations do not recognize animals as sentient beings. And we expect sustainable lifestyles to be widely adopted in our homes? You have to learn how to drive a car before lifting up the hood to fix it.

POV: State of the climate community

On reddit last week, I asked the #climateoffensive channel what their #1 issue was with the climate community. It sparked a pretty interesting conversation and important reminder about the variety of priority and purpose we find in the eclectic group of eco-conscious humans.

Here is my #1 issue (atm) with sustainability in 2020:

It’s pretty upsetting how willing we are to trash each other when we disagree.

For example, I have been critical of doomsday climate rhetoric in the past. I personally don’t find it to be productive when trying to convince someone to take an activist role.

What do we end up with? Anxious teenagers and jaded old folks. I even started a blog trying to de-politicize climate conversations.

Guess what? IT”S AN OPINION.

I’m not uneducated. I’m not a disinformation agent. I love animals and I love the Earth. And ultimately, I want what’s best for it. If I’m wrong about how to go about it, that’s ok too.

I’m always willing to hear someone out and change my mind.

It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to climate change… there is no one idea that is easily attainable under the current corrupt global system we find ourselves in.

The bulk of politicians, and business leaders are compromised. No one wants to give up their teeny temporary power as renters, creators, and destroyers on this blue-green vessel.

It will take the will of the masses to force them to change. Maybe that requires scaring the public, maybe that’s not the best method.

In the meantime, let’s understand that we (the climate-concerned public) all have one common goal: a healthier, happier future.

Before trashing someone for a non-conventional idea, many of which I have, why don’t we try to be a little less judgy and a little more conversational? 100 corporations are really to blame, after all 😉.

Here are some different perspectives from commenters:
The optimist:

I admit, I get frustrated when it seems there’s some sort of progress in green energy and it’s commonly met with ‘well it’s never going to be enough’

the small steps are important! It’s part of normalizing these things, getting more people involved, getting more eyes and funding on it, promoting it. I don’t think this is limited just to climate based groups, I see a lot of this ‘all or nothing’ almost purist idea in advocacy groups.

But it’s very disheartening that there’s an undercurrent of ‘if it doesn’t fix it in this exact way it’s no good’

As it stands, we are not going to have a morally clear means of fixing things. It sucks and blows real hard, but stuff is grey and messy now. We have to accept, roll with and celebrate the the little things that accumulate.

The concerned consumer:

I see a lot of blame pointed at corporations and how we, the people, are powerless to do anything at all when petrochemical companies and multinationals continue to do what they do for profit.

Almost as if they don’t rely on us, the consumer, choosing again and again to buy their services and products.

They know that regardless of their track record, environmental spills, destruction of the environment, increasing net emissions, they know the customer has a short memory and tomorrow they’ll be demanding the cheapest energy prices, newest and best gadgets, and another Big Mac.

The concerned citizen:

I don’t think it’s on us consumers; but it is on us as citizens. The externality causes the market to fail, and only governments can fix it. Since even the best policies seldom pass themselves, it’s on us as citizens to do something about it. Here are some things I’ve done, if anyone’s looking for ideas.

The institutionalist:

Consumer-side activism does not work. The only thing that works is systemic change, which requires legislation by governments. Which is basically what ILikeNeurons said 5 hours before me. It’s not on us as consumers, but as citizens.

Example: you can stop eating meat today, and maybe you can convince some friends to follow you. But you’re never going to convince the vast majority of consumers to stop consuming. They have to be forced to stop by passing laws that curb consumption.

The doomsday-er:

We avoid talking about worst case scenarios. Constantly.

It’s incredibly annoying. Guess what, we fight to stop a 2-4 degree increase in global temperature before the year 2100. That’s the goal, i get it.

But there’s an above 1% chance of an 8 degree increase within that same time-frame if lots of things go wrong and cascade upon each other.

That would be the absolute extinction of the human race.

It’s an unlikely but fully possible event.

And we don’t talk about it because that would be “alarmist”.

The compromiser:

The main thing that bothers me is radicalism. If you are too radical, no one with listen to you, except other radicals. You can be radical in your mind and beliefs, but it’s not gonna help you convince anyone to side with you who doesn’t already.

It’s the same idea for every topic, every political debate. Be kind, don’t blame, it’s not any single persons fault. I actually believe conversations about it should start out very friendly and simply, until people start to become intrigued and want to learn more.

But threats towards people or threats about the world ending just make people roll their eyes. This is what turned me into a climate denier in high school. And I was like that until I took a class in college on sustainability. It was purely informational, interesting, and intriguing.

There were no radical statements made or anger in the learning. It was just, here are the facts and go think about it. And I did think about it, for years. Then I decided to go back to college and learn more about it and become totally passionate about it.

But I guarantee you, nothing said on the news, by Greta Thunberg, or by political activists would have made me give a damn about it.

The radicalist

Lack of radicalization towards radical problems.

You feel as if you can’t compromise on your morals despite the fact there’s a moral imperative to adjusting strategy when the outcome doesn’t lead to justice.

Like with the trolley problem, which is a moral dilemma about switching tracks to save more lives, people are less likely to make the same exchange if instead of switching tracks you’re intentionally pushing someone onto the tracks to derail it.

Get over your feelings or you won’t be able to save anyone let alone humanity from its own processes of self termination.

That’s all I gotta say.

Sooo… there a lot of different perspectives. Can we respect that?

Stop self-identifying with labels. See yourself as a infinite point of consciousness interacting with other infinite points of consciousness.

I may be a vegan climate-concerned libertarian today, but a New Jerseyan jew playing golf tomorrow. I’m not married to any labels.

I decided to share pieces of that reddit comment thread to demonstrate how there are sooo many different types of climate-concerned citizens. Pigeon-holing the climate/sustainability community into one group is not only unproductive, it’s misleading.

Even a uber-conservative homesteader in the middle of the country is part of the community in some respect. They are probably more “sustainable” than your average 28 year-old Brooklynite.

Instead of passing judgment on someone who sees the world differently than you, respect that we all have one thing in common: a commitment to a healthier, happier ecosystem.

Sustainability beyond 2020

Sustainability in 2020 was all about transition. We wanted to transition economies, transition corporate strategies, transition jobs, transition homes, transition education transition social lifestyles.

Sustainability beyond 2020, headed into 2021, should be about action.

The climate movement is taking a lead on this front. It is time for companies to replace goals with policies. Local politicians can make basic changes to municipalities that carry real impact.

As much as I scoff at California politics, look at what Los Angeles was able to accomplish locally against pollution… in 30 years. That took a lot of boots on the ground to carry out.

Let’s carry this momentum to 2021.

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