Future historians will have plenty to debate on the state of sustainable business in the 2010s. Was it the decade when the business community finally woke up to address the world’s pressing environmental, social and governance (ESG) challenges or when the last great opportunities for action were squandered?

Although 2019 was only the second-hottest year, the 2010s turned out to be the warmest decade on record. Extreme weather events over the past decade forced more than 20 million people a year to leave their homes, estimates Oxfam. You can add to the list of climate-related human impacts: mounting mass extinctions; growing global inequality; and the appalling impact of environmental problems on public health. And if the disappointing COP25 is any indication, sustainability professionals will have their work cut out for them in the 2020s. If the 2010s were the “ESG awakening,” then the 2020s will need to be the “ESG actioning” in order to avoid a frightful future “ESG reckoning.”

To reflect on the past year and anticipate all that might come in 2020, we at thinkPARALLAX connected with several corporate sustainability leaders across industries, including food, technology and fashion.

The theme (or is that meme?) of 2019

It turns out that summing up 2019 with a single theme isn’t so easy: corporate sustainability leaders have mixed opinions. “In 2019, the theme is sadly ‘not enough,'” said Jessica Appelgren, vice president of communication at Impossible Foods. “We are in an unprecedented moment of environmental and human crisis where marginal energy savings or incremental shifts in business are just not enough.”

Although the past year saw youth taking to the streets in protest, led by breakout climate activists such as Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, many companies continued down a “business as usual” trajectory in terms of ESG strategy, Appelgren added. Others are cautiously optimistic in their reflection. Janiece Evans-Page, vice president of global philanthropy and sustainability at Fossil Group, characterized 2019 with a single word: Awakening.

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