Three Sustainability Trends That Have Companies on Their Toes

06/12/2015 01:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

As a hospitality company that happens to have wings, customer expectations lead to our constant innovation. Listening to hundreds of other sustainability-focused leaders gathered at the 2015 Sustainable Brands Conference, some exciting trends are emerging. Here are my predictions about what we will see more of on the sustainability front:

1. Disrupting business as usual will be focused internally first.
Patagonia shattered the consumption paradigm with their "don't buy what you don't need" marketing campaign. While less radical, CVS stopped selling cigarettes, a product that -- while dangerous for human health -- is perfectly legal in all 50 states. Whether anchored in core company values or the pursuit of breaking through to consumers, this disrupt-our-own-business trend is changing the game.

2. Brands will embrace discussion around "risky" issues based on their core business and values.
There are two components to this trend. First is honesty from brands and communicating the challenges of being a sustainable business. A company's charitable initiatives may have an impact, but that doesn't mean customers don't also care about other issues that may be harder for a company to address. Reputation, loyalty and transparency are more nuanced and I see companies getting more comfortable with the "risky" issues they once tried to avoid discussing openly. As an airline, we willingly engage in conversations about climate and carbon so our crewmembers and customers know we are focused on continuous improvement and innovation -- even though we aren't fully at a solution yet.

The second element of this trend is how more companies are engaging in "risky" social conversations that every company would shy away from in the past. Starbucks' attempt to encourage employees and customers to talk about racial tensions and the effort of 379 companies (including JetBlue) urging the Supreme Court to support same-sex marriage are recent examples. While not always successful in the moment, when this type of engagement comes from core values (not just joining a conversation for marketing gain), you can see how it could contribute to long-term reputation and loyalty.

3. There will be more brazen brand boldness.
The common denominator in the two emerging trends above is boldness. We have challenging issues facing the world and more and more companies are taking bold action to be part of the solution. While it's too early to say what next trend this boldness will lead to, I predict that bold will continue to change the sustainability narrative. At the SB'15 conference, GM encouraged brands to "come out of the 'climate closet'." It posed that if the world's big automotive, aviation, and energy industries can do it -- anyone can. The phrase "come out of the climate closet" immediately became the hit of the conference -- and I believe should be the focus of the U.S. sustainability conversation leading up to the climate negotiations in Paris 2015.

Sustainability is a business imperative that will shape brand health. Progressive customers and the brands that listen to them have created a slow-motion consumer revolution. I predict that there will be another, more disruptive, wave after 2016 for opportunistic and agile brands -- and the planet -- to profit from.

Sophia Mendelsohn is currently the Head of Sustainability at JetBlue Airways, where she is shaping policies and practices that enhance JetBlue's competitive advantage and reduce environmental impact. Follow her on twitter: SophiaLeonoraM.