Discussions continue to take place about the state of sustainability. As companies fight for profitability and efficiencies in these challenging economic times, many believe sustainability has diminished in importance, and some regard it as a thing of the past altogether. While some companies have reduced their emphasis on sustainability initiatives, I believe it will remain an important area for business. We’re a few weeks into the New Year, but it’s not too late to consider and plan for this year’s expected sustainability trends.

Below are six sustainability trends I think companies should keep a watchful eye on in 2012:

Farm Land

 Sustainability and the Business Strategy

There are numerous opportunities for a company to engage in social, environmental, and economic sustainability initiatives; but it simply is not realistic or financially feasible for a company to take on everything. Sustainability strategies not directly connected to the business are rarely executed to their full potential. The most successful sustainability initiatives are part of a company’s core business strategy; they are not treated as special projects, or nice to have, or even an after-thought.

In 2012, I believe companies will begin making the move to better integrate sustainability with their overall business strategy. They will refine their sustainability efforts to ensure they are relevant to and align with their culture, mission, values and strategic direction. More companies will begin to think of sustainability in terms of workplace safety, environmental stewardship and product quality, building it into all relevant processes throughout the company.

Increased Transparency and Accountability

For 2012, transparency and accountability are in, while green-washing and social-washing are out (defined as the practice of making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental or social benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice). Stakeholders have become increasingly critical of and vocal toward companies treating sustainability as a marketing tool. They demand detailed information regarding a company’s sustainability performance, and expect to hear the good and the bad. While it may seem counterproductive to call attention to and hash out failures (and it may send a wave of panic through your legal department), stakeholders are more amenable to companies that openly discuss their mistakes and their plans to correct them.

The trend for transparency and accountability is further supported by a plethora of social media applications such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. As Web-based stakeholder engagement continues to grow in popularity, companies will have no choice but to tweet and blog about their sustainability performance. Companies that ignore or try to “control” conversations that occur in these spaces will do so at their own risk. Open, transparent, and proactive discussions are essential.

The Corporate Water Footprint

For those in the protein-processing industry, water is an essential requirement for all operations and a resource with no substitute. As we move into 2012, carbon footprinting will continue to share the spotlight with water footprinting. Gone are the days when companies could simply talk about their efforts to reduce water use. With increasing concerns over resource scarcity, companies are now expected to fully understand their water footprint. This includes but is not limited to a company’s impacts on local watersheds, consumptive and non-consumptive water use, water treatment and pollution prevention efforts, and the water footprint of a company’s supply chain.

Supply-chain Engagement is Changing

As suppliers and customers face ongoing economic hurdles, I believe their principal focus in 2012 will be to aggressively manage traditional supply-chain challenges such as lowering costs, and improving on-time delivery and transportation efficiencies. Customers will expect their suppliers to operate in a socially, environmentally and economically responsible manner however, and will likely inquire about sustainability performance via requests for proposals and supplier meetings. I think supplier sustainability surveys and scorecards will continue to decline in popularity in 2012. While the intent may have been to use surveys and scorecards to make purchasing decisions, customers simply don’t have the time and resources in place to sort through and use the data in an effective manner. Additionally, surveys that primarily drive the sustainability agenda of a customer do not afford suppliers the opportunity to share how they uniquely integrate sustainability into their business 

Creative Sustainability Communications

Massive, 100-page-plus corporate sustainability reports have significantly waned in popularity over the course of the last three years. In 2012, companies will continue to look for innovative, fresh and engaging opportunities to share their sustainability performance. The focus will be ensuring sustainability-related communications reach the eyes and ears of all stakeholders, especially the consumers.

Video messaging and social-media applications will become more widespread. More companies will “beef up” existing sustainability information on their Web sites. We will continue to see an increase in the number of issue-based reports. These are reports that allow companies to share information with stakeholders on the topics of greatest importance to them with a greater degree of detail and transparency than can be achieved in the traditional sustainability report.

 In the Food and Beverage Industry …

In November 2011, Innova Market Insights revealed the 10 key trends expected to impact the food and beverage market in 2012. Purity, sustainability and authenticity made the top three, as consumers continue to look for products with added value, despite the ongoing economic uncertainty. Perform a simple online search to learn more about the trends identified by Innova, which include:

1.      “Pure” is the New Natural

2.      Green is a Given (Sustainability)

3.      Location, Location, Location (Authenticity)

4.      Premium Stands Out

5.      Seniors Draw Attention

6.      Forty is the New Twenty

7.      Grounded in Science

8.      Regulators Force a Rethink

9.      Unmeasureable Niches

10.  Boom for Protein

Sustainability may be evolving but remains an expectation in local and global business communities. Companies interested in building brand loyalty, strengthening their competitive footing, advancing stakeholder trust, and fostering employee happiness, will maintain sustainability as a key element in their corporate business strategy in 2012.