Sustainability as a Megatrend in Businesses

Here's an article from the Harvard Business Review on Sustainability growth in the corporate world:

The Sustainability Imperative

Most executives know that how they respond to the challenge of sustainability will profoundly affect the competitiveness—and perhaps even the survival—of their organizations. Yet most are flailing around, launching a hodgepodge of initiatives without any overarching vision or plan. That’s not because they don’t see sustainability as a strategic issue. Rather, it’s because they think they’re facing an unprecedented journey for which there is no road map.
But there is a road map. Our research into the forces that have shaped the competitive landscape in recent decades reveals that “business megatrends” have features and trajectories in common. Sustainability is an emerging megatrend, and thus its course is to some extent predictable. Understanding how firms won in prior megatrends can help executives craft the strategies and systems they’ll need to gain advantage in this one.

The concept of megatrends is not new, of course. Businessman and author John Naisbitt popularized the term in his 1982 best seller of the same name, referring to incipient societal and economic shifts such as globalization, the rise of the information society, and the move from hierarchical organizations to networks.

Our focus is on business megatrends, which force fundamental and persistent shifts in how companies compete. Such transformations arise from technological innovation or from new ways of doing business, and many factors can launch or magnify the process of change. Business megatrends may emerge from or be accelerated by financial crises, shifts in the social realities that define the marketplace, or the threat of conflict over resources. The geopolitics of the Cold War, for example, drove the innovations that launched both the space race and rapid developments in the field of microelectronics—ultimately unleashing the information technology megatrend. Electrification, the rise of mass production, and globalization were also megatrends, as was the quality movement of the 1970s and 1980s. The common thread among them is that they presented inescapable strategic imperatives for corporate leaders.

Why do we think sustainability qualifies as an emerging megatrend? Over the past 10 years, environmental issues have steadily encroached on businesses’ capacity to create value for customers, shareholders, and other stakeholders. Globalized workforces and supply chains have created environmental pressures and attendant business liabilities. The rise of new world powers, notably China and India, has intensified competition for natural resources (especially oil) and added a geopolitical dimension to sustainability. “Externalities” such as carbon dioxide emissions and water use are fast becoming material—meaning that investors consider them central to a firm’s performance and stakeholders expect companies to share information about them.

These forces are magnified by escalating public and governmental concern about climate change, industrial pollution, food safety, and natural resource depletion, among other issues. Consumers in many countries are seeking out sustainable products and services or leaning on companies to improve the sustainability of traditional ones. Governments are interceding with unprecedented levels of new regulation—from the recent SEC ruling that climate risk is material to investors to the EPA’s mandate that greenhouse gases be regulated as a pollutant.
Further fueling this megatrend, thousands of companies are placing strategic bets on innovation in energy efficiency, renewable power, resource productivity, and pollution control. (See the sidebar “Fueling the Megatrend.”) What this all adds up to is that managers can no longer afford to ignore sustainability as a central factor in their companies’ long-term competitiveness.