11/10/2014 03:12 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

2014: Marching Forward

As 2014 winds down I thought I would look at the biggest trends during the last calendar year.

For me the most important accomplishment of the peoples' climate marches around the world was the large number of business leaders (along with usual and predictable politicians and celebrities) who were out embracing the cause. The idea that people are expecting (and in some cases demanding) action by businesses as well as governments and multinational bodies (like the United Nations) may be an important trend, as organizations like The B Team seek to transform business from within.

While some of the media chose to cover the event and issues that inspired it, others chose instead to focus on optics such as the ironic amount of litter left behind by those who were marching against environmental degradation.

That brings me to a disturbing trend I see continuing and accelerating. More and more of the media are attempting to grab attention and eyeballs by using tabloid tactics and sensationalism, rather than through powerful, credible, accurate reporting of news and information.

While I do appreciate that it is difficult to take a complex story and make it understandable, but whether the story is about the violence that broke out between Hamas and Israel, the Ebola virus or climate science, but all too often -- particularly in the American media -- the desire to attract and maintain an audience results in pandering to that audience with increasingly loud and hyper-dramatic rhetoric and opinion masquerading as information.

When the media puts out information that is false or inflammatory it is akin to a company releasing a defective or dangerous product to the marketplace. Doing it unwittingly is a failure of corporate governance. To do either knowingly is a failure of ethics. Either way, it's a failure of these businesses to take responsibility for their actions and products.

On the other hand, the year ended with some positive trends as summarized in 'The Evolution of the Chief Sustainability Officer' report by the Weinreb Group.

  1. The role of the chief sustainability officer has transitioned from being responsible for the tactical implementation of environmental and social initiatives toward developing strategies that deliver simultaneous benefits for stakeholders and shareholders. Sustainability is increasingly recognized for its ability to deliver both topline growth as well as bottom line productivity savings.
  2. CSOs are spearheading innovation in order to meet the need for sustainably designed products and processes that meet radically different criteria rather than focusing on incremental improvements. This means that sustainability is increasingly tied areas like procurement, Research & Development, design, marking and waste management.
  3. CSOs are actively engaged in communication of their company's sustainability agenda to both internal and external stakeholders, sending powerful messages to stakeholders ranging from employees to customers about the company's values and priorities.
  4. While moving in the right direction, I believe a greater focus on engaging with constituents in dialogue and actions (rather than 'sending' messages to them) are necessary.

  5. The report notes that more CSO are reporting directly to the CEO. Being part of the senior leadership team sends an important message because it both demonstrates and ensures that sustainability is an integral part of the business strategy.
  6. Many CSOs are chosen from long-term company employees rather than new hires from the outside. This may be due to the recognition that success requires sustainability be embedded into all corners of the business and therefor it relies on the leader's ability to understand the business and effectively persuade directors and managers to take ownership of the company's sustainability actions and achievements.

I would like to thank Michelle Banks (@MichAnneBanks), Diana Bhaktul (@dianabaktul), Graham Sinclair (@esgarchitect) and Aman Singh Das (@amansinghCSR) for their contributions and suggestions for this piece.