How to put sustainability at the top of the agenda in 2020

Business leaders have a lot to reflect on when it comes to the past decade.

How to put sustainability at the top of the agenda in 2020

Business leaders have a lot to reflect on when it comes to the past decade. So much has changed – the smartphone has transformed everything, AI and automation has started taking hold, while decision-making has been overwhelmed by Brexit and wider geopolitics.

More change is on the horizon as we enter 2020. Technology was a game changer for the 2010s, but for business leaders around the world, the new focus will be on sustainability. Sustainability isn’t just about recycling or fair-trade practices, as important as these are. It runs through the entire company. In the new decade, we will see businesses shift towards more sustainable models regarding supply chains, the talent process and the future workforce, which will play out in major transformational ways.  

supply chains

Under pressure from ethically minded consumers, in the year ahead we will begin seeing companies actively transforming their supply chains to become ‘circular’. This means businesses must become accountable for their entire supply chain, moving from an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ production model. Production will no longer mean, for example, simply making shampoo and shipping it out in a plastic bottle. Moving forward, businesses will be responsible for where that bottle ends up and how it gets there.

In 2020 we are likely to see a major global CPG work with retailers to introduce ‘refill stations’, where consumers can get discounts on their shampoo by taking old bottles back to be refilled. The effects of this are significant, with plastic waste drastically cut and carbon emissions reduced. 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 models

Most businesses don’t even consider the prospect of re-hiring previous employees. Up until now, the talent process has been relatively linear – you interview, hire, onboard, and after a while the employee leaves. Things are about to change, however. 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.

Now, circularity is moving from a ‘hire to retire’ to a ‘hire to retire to re-hire’ model. For HR and Recruitment, this means allowing previously-known employees to skip the onboarding stage – or at least a large portion of it – freeing up their time to be productive straight away. This can be accelerated thanks to technologies such as performance analytics and robotic process automation, which can personalise all necessary onboarding based on the employee’s previous experience. Eliminating the menial tasks associated with onboarding completely new employees also has the additional benefit of freeing up HR’s time to focus on more strategic activities to help the board.


Flexibility is a cornerstone of sustainable business. To make truly circular models stick, leaders must incorporate giving people the ability to work anywhere, anytime into their businesses. This means embracing the gig economy.

Previously restricted to digital natives, in 2020 we’ll begin to see large corporates integrating the gig economy. This will be possible through a focus on process changes and mindset which accepts that flexible working is part of the future and 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. With a potential talent flux on the horizon from Brexit, in addition to the existing skills shortage which almost every industry is facing, incorporating the gig economy into corporate enterprise world will mean that in 2020, we will see previously untapped talent adding new or forgotten skills to the workforce while helping to drive the bottom line.


Trust between suppliers and corporates, and employers and employees is paramount to the above. Trust enables transparency, and the possibilities both within workplaces and across circular supply chains. Having trust across the whole ecosystem is crucial for sustainability and ethical practices. 

Thankfully, we’ll see the birth of the Trust Economy in 2020. To become a reality, however, this will rely on transforming corporate mentalities. 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.

A case in point is Microsoft’s recent trialling of a four-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.

In the next year, we’ll see sustainability start to make a real impact in some of the world’s biggest businesses. While circularity might sound wishy-washy to begin with, its impact will be huge, and will set the standard for how business conducts itself for the rest of the decade. As the new year begins, business leaders must sit up and take note – or risk falling far behind the competition. 

Jonquil Hackenberg
Jonquil Hackenberg

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