Why 2020 will be the year of sustainable business

By Jonquil Hackenberg, Head, C-Suite Advisory, Infosys Consulting
As the start of a new decade peers over the horizon, many business leaders will be looking back on how much has changed over the last ten years. The sma...

As the start of a new decade peers over the horizon, many business leaders will be looking back on how much has changed over the last ten years. The smartphone has transformed everything, AI and automation have begun to take hold, Brexit and wider geopolitics have overwhelmed decision-making – there’s a lot to reflect on.

While technology was definitely the game-changer in the 2010s, next year heralds a new focus for business leaders around the world: sustainability. Sustainability isn’t just about recycling or fair trade practices, as important as these are. It touches every part of a company, from its supply chain operations, to its talent practices, to the physical workspace itself. In 2020 and in the years beyond, this shift to sustainable business will take shape in several major and transformational ways. 


Supply chains: Going circular

The first fundamental shift we will see in the next year will be some of the world’s biggest companies actively transforming their supply chains to become ‘circular’, under pressure from ethically-minded consumers. With consumers now looking to the corporate world to help them reduce their carbon emissions and cut down on the plastic filling our oceans, in 2020, the onus is firmly on businesses. 

To start making the right moves before it’s too late, businesses need to move from an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ production model to being accountable for their whole end-to-end supply chain. This means no longer simply making shampoo and shipping it out in a plastic bottle, but being responsible for where that bottle ends up and how it gets there.

In 2020 we are likely to see at least one major global CPG strike up a deal with retailers for ‘refill stations’, where consumers can get discounts on their shampoo by taking old bottles back to be refilled, drastically cutting plastic waste and reducing carbon emissions. But circularity is not just about returns. Big companies will take more responsibility for the front end of their supply chain too, with ethical sourcing and provenance of product also an important part of the puzzle.  


Talent: Hire to retire to re-hire

The concept of circularity doesn’t just apply to supply chains, however. Take talent: ordinarily the process is linear – you interview, hire, onboard, and after a while the employee leaves. But once again, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ won’t cut it. Nowadays most businesses don’t even consider the prospect of re-hiring previous employees, but in 2020 we’ll see several forward-thinking firms, particularly in under-pressure industries like financial services, taking a chance on the tried and tested.

In recruitment and HR, circularity is moving from a ‘hire to retire’ to a ‘hire to retire to re-hire’ model. This way, previously-known employees can skip the onboarding stage – or at least a large portion of it – freeing up their time to be productive straight away. By incorporating technologies into this process, any and all onboarding necessary can be done in a personalised way dependent on previous experience, thanks to performance analytics and robotic process automation introduced into a well-oiled HCM system. This has the added benefit of freeing up HR’s time from the menial tasks associated with onboarding brand new employees. 


Workforces: Gig Economy gone good

To truly make circular talent models stick, however, businesses need to think about how best to ensure sustainability in their roles. This means giving people the ability to work anywhere, anytime. Flexibility is a cornerstone of sustainable business, and nowhere is this more championed than in the gig economy.

In 2020 we’ll see the gig economy becoming integrated into large corporates, whereas previously they were restricted to digital natives. This will be possible through a focus on process changes and mindset which accepts that flexible working is part of the future and it is here to stay. At its core, the gig economy enables businesses to tap into talent pools that are hard to reach: those with caring needs, disabled people, or those outside of major cities. As almost every industry is now facing a major skills shortage, bringing the gig economy out of the shadows and into the corporate enterprise world will mean that in 2020, we will see previously untapped talent adding new or forgotten skills to the workforce. 

The onus will be on big corporates to make the move to these sustainable talent models, enabling employees to come and go as they please, while ultimately helping drive the bottom line.


Workplaces: Enter the Trust Economy

All of the above relies on a huge degree of trust, both between suppliers and corporates, and employers and employees. Trust will enable transparency. And with transparency comes a whole world of possibilities, both within workplaces and across circular supply chains. Good job, then, that we will see the birth of the Trust Economy in 2020. 

Making the Trust Economy a reality will rely on transforming corporate mentalities. In circular supply chains, having trust across the whole ecosystem is crucial for sustainability and ethical practices. Businesses must be trusted to source products ethically, and treat every worker in that supply chain fairly. Meanwhile, consumers place their trust in businesses who are doing all they can to be sustainable – through actions, not just words.

From an employer and employee perspective, Microsoft recently trialled a 4-day working week in Japan, which saw increased productivity. The transition for corporates should be from a model that measures by time spent to one measuring by outcome. This enables productivity with purpose, rather than just being busy: this comes as much from the physical workspace itself as from an employee’s to-do list. It also relies on employers implicitly trusting their employees to get the job done, and then rewarding those employees for the work they complete.

Circularity might sound like a wishy-washy term to those who don’t see its impact. But within the next year, we will see all of the above start to take shape in some of the world’s biggest businesses. For the C-Suite, 2020 should be the year that sustainability is brought out from the darkness and into the light.


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