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Societal Themes Shaping 2020

December 17, 2019

She’s not old enough to drive a car in her hometown of Stockholm, but that didn’t keep teen climate activist Greta Thunberg from gracing the cover of Time as its youngest-ever Person of the Year or getting nominated for a Nobel Prize. Time described her as a “galvanizing force” – the “avatar of a broader generational shift in our culture.” Her youthfulness, compelling personality and forceful message have drawn millions into the climate conversation.

Youth climate activism is one of three societal themes that helped define 2019 and promise to influence commerce and politics in the year ahead. The other two themes are the redefining of corporate purpose and the continued surge of investor interest in ESG (environmental, social, governance).

The Purpose of a Corporation

In August, the Business Roundtable (BRT) released a restatement of its Principles of Corporate Governance. In a major shift from four decades of shareholder focus, the document broadened the purpose of a corporation to encompass its responsibility to create value for all stakeholders.

While delivered in 2019, the BRT’s new position evolved from years of corporate soul‑searching. But this official validation of a brave new stakeholder-inclusive world has changed the corporate conversation in important ways. For one thing, the already blurred line between purpose and CSR has gotten even fuzzier. Indeed, the BRT offered that its new definition “outlined a modern standard for corporate responsibility.”

Sensing the opportunity, consultants of every ilk have begun vying to help corporate strategists and branding leads find that all-important North Star. Regardless of what function is driving the purpose discussion, the inescapable truth is that all sustainable businesses fulfill a societal need. Enter the CSR professional. If the CSR team – not just the CSR communicators, but the practitioners – don’t have a place at the table, something’s amiss. This is an opportunity for CSR professionals to further demonstrate that this work is foundational, not ancillary, to a company’s long-term success.

Will the industry’s self-examination be authentic enough to yield game-changing progress on the role of business in society, or will it simply become an exercise in branding and marketing?

Answering Surging Investor Interest

Another major 2019 trend was the rise in investor engagement on ESG issues. It may be the single most consequential development in the CSR space in decades. As a result, many mid-size and smaller publicly traded firms, and even some large-cap firms, are now scrambling to shore up their CSR strategies and storytelling, as are companies planning IPOs or getting spun off from a larger parent.

In the face of this attention, companies may be changing how they report their CSR/ESG performance. While the broad-based, multistakeholder reporting framework known as the Global Reporting Initiative Standards is still the world’s most widely used CSR/ESG reporting scheme, its use has leveled off. The reporting frameworks gaining traction today focus primarily on investors, lenders and credit-rating agencies. These are early days, but we’re already seeing more investor-centric content in companies’ reporting strategies. What this means for communicating the “softer” stories such as community engagement and corporate philanthropy remains to be seen. But this increased financial focus has prompted some companies to begin issuing multiple, complementary or even single-topic publications.

Embracing Youth Climate Activism

Greta may be the principal icon of climate evangelism among today’s youth, but she’s hardly alone.

The Sunrise Movement, a self-described army of young people looking to “stop climate change and create millions of good jobs,” has exerted its share of influence. Half of the 20 candidates it endorsed in the 2018 mid-term elections won. Sunrise went on to stage high-profile sit-ins and climate strikes and was instrumental in pushing the Green New Deal framework. The organization is focused on winning governing power in 2020 and disrupting the status quo the following year to attain a Green New Deal.

Other youth-led groups like the UK Student Climate Network and Zero Hour are harnessing youthful energy and angst to influence their respective governments to take action. The focus of these actions is on political change, but it’s likely just a matter of time before this coveted audience turns its attention toward the marketplace.

This inevitability hasn’t been lost on the corporate world. Hundreds of companies shut down during the September 2019 Global Climate Strike or gave employees time off to participate, and thousands more drew attention to the protests. And groups like the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative have been conducting formal dialogues with activist youth.

These young people are voicing their anger at what they perceive to be inaction on a crisis of existential proportions. For companies looking to engage, tread lightly and be authentic and transparent about your intentions. Don’t mistake youthfulness for naiveté.

These are just three CSR-focused themes that will help shape 2020 as we move into the final decade of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. By all accounts, we have a long way to go to reach these goals, so expect the next 10 years to be filled with the sound of urgency.