What’s on the horizon? Predictions for sustainable business in 2021

By Phil Crawford

Covid-19 threw the world a real curve ball last year so who knows what’s in store for 2021? That’s the question we put to some our key sponsors as we welcomed in the New Year.

They were optimistic about the coming year with many saying the challenges created by Covid-19 had also created opportunities and increased the momentum to tackle climate change and restore nature. Here are their predictions for the 22nd year of the century.

Significant opportunities for change 

Matt Kennedy-Good, Director, business.govt.nz, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment

For much of 2021 Covid-19 seems likely to continue to disrupt tourism, migration, global supply chains, and how we shop and work. Together with the Government’s prioritisation on reducing carbon, this has created significant opportunities for doing business differently.

During the lockdown many businesses moved to digitise their operations – increasing sales while reducing carbon and effort. We’re supporting this trend with free digital resources and education in the Digital Boost campaign.

Following lockdown we also saw a spike in company registrations and businesses adapting to new trends – including the demand for local, sustainably produced products. We see this trend continuing, with Kiwi businesses leveraging ‘buy local’ as well as the positive global media attention our Covid-19 response generated.

Together with NZTE and other partners, we’re collaborating with SBN to help small businesses reduce their carbon footprint with a new Climate Action 20/25 toolkit to be released soon on business.govt.nz. It will provide businesses with an easy framework to identify the areas where they can reduce emissions and support them on a journey to make that happen.

Collaboration on climate action

Becky Lloyd, CEO, Toitū Envirocare

Caveat: I am an optimist.

There is an almost perfect storm of change drivers coming together – consumers, investors, regulators, buyers, business leaders. 2021 must be the year of execution. It’s time to convert the promises into action. Covid-19 has shown us that we can be more transformational than we thought. Those who can take action should.

We will see the Climate Change Commission budgets paint a more detailed picture about what we need to achieve – particularly in critical sectors such as transport, energy and agriculture.

The commitment to a carbon neutral Government by 2025 will see a huge collaboration effort as the public sector takes hold of the opportunity to transform. Exporters will be seizing the opportunity to build on New Zealand’s post-Covid reputation and we will see our sustainable exporters thrive.

It will become a mainstream expectation to measure, manage, reduce, mitigate and disclose your carbon footprint. And as the mainstream grows, leading organisations will be (are already) mapping out their path to better than net zero. The strong focus on disclosure and transparency will grow, with zero tolerance for greenwashing or shallow claims. Technology will evolve to make regular emissions tracking easy.

Embedding sustainability

Peter Thomas, Managing Director, Fuji Xerox New Zealand

I predict we will see an increase in collaboration between businesses, industry groups, Government and community to share strategies and initiatives to reduce emissions and contribute to a more circular economy.

It’s now common practice for businesses to publicly report their emissions, but the focus in 2021 will be on how companies will achieve reductions. Setting and achieving short, medium- and long-term targets, and the methodology of how to achieve these reductions, will be vital in making progress against climate change.

I also think we will see more businesses investing in education programmes and initiatives to build a culture where sustainability is valued. Embedding this culture and getting everyone on board and engaged with achieving carbon reductions will be crucial.

As we’ve seen new legislation and the declaration of a climate emergency here in Aotearoa, climate change adaptation and risk management will continue to be an important area of focus for all in 2021.

We are already seeing the effects of global warming and extreme weather events. There is no more time to view climate change risk and adaptation as a future consideration. It will require action, along with further planning in accordance with global warming potential, to address this as a now problem, not a future problem.

Ambitious plans

Claire Shaw, General Manager Corporate Affairs & Sustainability, Meridian

I’m optimistic 2021 will see businesses taking the opportunity to redefine how they operate with sustainability at the forefront. The ball has started to roll. New Zealanders are increasingly making sustainability an integral part of business development.

The decarbonisation of transport and industrial heat are two main areas we’re focusing on in 2021 to make a real difference. We’re already seeing an increasing appetite from industry leaders to move faster and stronger and we’re proud of the role we can play in supporting this.

2021 will bring some ambitious carbon reduction action plans.

More cohesion and ambition

Carolyn Mortland, Director Global Sustainability, Fonterra

2021 will be a year of both greater ambition and more action.

If there’s a silver lining to Covid-19, it’s been the proof that business and governments have stuck to their commitments and kept upping the ante on the sustainability goals, despite the immediate challenges. We will see this accelerate in 2021 – more of our global customers setting targets and seeking partnerships with suppliers to lower the carbon footprint of their products or help regenerate the environment; more consumer products offering an environmental benefit; more public demands for action.

It will be a busy year for climate action, starting with the Climate Change Commission’s first carbon budgets and culminating in COP26 where countries report on progress and make new decisions for action. New Zealand will shift from talking about ‘we’ve made a start’ to figuring out how we’re going to do it across transport, process heat and biological emissions, prompting a more cohesive and ambitious investment plan by business and government to support the transition and boost research in critical areas like enteric methane.

Positive impacts for the planet and people

Mike Davy, Chief Member Advocacy Officer, MAS

I’m expecting 2021 to be a year of positive transformation for New Zealand business. As societies around the world slowly open up after Covid-19 I think the business world is going to be fundamentally changed for the better. The crisis has nurtured our sense of the greater good at levels I can’t recall in my lifetime, and that’s going to flow over to all of us expecting much more from the organisations we work for and buy things from.

I’m excited about how corporate New Zealand is going to respond. I’m optimistic we’re going to see a wave of purpose driven business sweep over our corporate landscape. More organisations are going to declare publicly that they exist not just to make profits for their shareholders, but also to make a positive impact on our society and our planet.

I’m hopeful there’s going to be a step change in corporate environmental action as well. I can see impetus coming from international criticism of New Zealand’s relatively poor performance over the past 30 years. Greta Thunberg’s criticism of the New Zealand Government’s climate emergency at the end of 2020 will be the start of an uncomfortable new trend. Finally our ‘clean green’ global reputation is going to be revealed as the emperor’s new clothes and we’ll have to face the fact that since 1990 our greenhouse gas emissions have risen 60%.

But, I think that will be a really good thing. Nothing spurs a Kiwi into action more than international criticism, and after all the positive global publicity around our science-led Covid response in 2020, we’re due an equal and opposite reaction in 2021.

So I’m ever-hopeful that Government-led corporate climate action will ramp up this year. I’m expecting to see some serious incentives from this Government for decarbonising the transport fleet. And I’m hoping for incentives that encourage decarbonising in other sectors as well – like the replacement of coal boilers with electricity. Without incentives, change simply happens too slowly.

Reducing waste

Steve Aschebrock, Managing Director, Inzide Commercial

We’re an Island that is filling up with imported waste and suffering from climate change impacts (South Dunedin and the South Island’s West Coast to name just two places). Even the Insurance industry is finally sending a strong signal saying no to coastal property protection. Please don’t let the taxpayer become the insurer of last resort or we will continue to build where we shouldn’t. So my predictions are around these two massive drivers.

Removal of single use plastics will continue to gain momentum (aren’t you sick of seeing face masks in the sea?) and will encompass more product categories. Think building materials (carpet tile, vinyl tile, plastic furniture etc). And think non-recyclable Christmas & birthday wrapping paper.

In a perfect world I’d love to see our government pass a law that says New Zealand will only import products that have an end of life solution. That is, they can be recycled or composted here or returned to the overseas supplier.

Embodied carbon in materials and operational carbon will become two massive topics. Organisations that are already well advanced here will be reaping rewards as they take market share from their non-carbon focussed competitors. I am expecting that customers will look past “by 2050 we will…” greenwash statements and focus on giving their custom to businesses that are saying “we are carbon neutral certified already and have been for years” and “this product has negative embodied carbon already”, like our Marmoleum flooring.

Regulated product stewardship

Adele Rose, Chief Executive, 3R Group

This year will see regulated product stewardship introduced into Aotearoa for the first time.  This will be a game changer in terms of our management of harmful waste and resources that are difficult to manage.

We expect to see tyres and synthetic refrigerant gases announced as the first regulated schemes.  This means these products will not be able to be sold in the New Zealand market without being part of an Ministry for the Environment accredited regulated product stewardship scheme.  Regulated stewardship is an effective means of building the cost of dealing with our waste into the sale price of that product, rather than letting the full cost burden fall on councils and ratepayers as happens now.

For tyres, regulation will see the end of tyre stockpiling and illegal dumps plus the development of effective end-use markets for this valuable resource. Regulated stewardship for refrigerants will help us reduce our impact on climate change. It will set standards for capturing harmful gases from air conditioning and refrigeration which have high global warming potential – some 9,000 times that of carbon emissions.

Alongside standardisation of kerbside recycling, the extension of the waste levy and the banning of some single-use or difficult to recycle plastics, the introduction of regulated product stewardship is a critical step on the path to a circular economy.

Access to food

Francesca Goodman-Smith, Waste Minimisation Manager, Foodstuffs NZ

During our Covid-19 lockdown we learnt just how fundamentally important access to food is.

Over 2020 we saw an increasing awareness of the vitally important role that food rescue organisations play in our communities by ensuring vulnerable people have access to food and, in turn, that food waste is prevented. This growing recognition has been demonstrated through the allocation of substantial government funds to initiatives to expand the food rescue sector, for example the New Zealand Food Network, the Aotearoa Food Rescue Alliance, and the Ka Ora, Ka Ako – healthy school lunches programme. We expect to see attention on this incredibly important third sector continue to grow throughout 2021.

This also alludes to a much wider growing awareness of the trend of social sustainability as we start 2021.

As well as an environmental and social problem, food waste is now acknowledged to be an economic one, with wasted food costing us $1 trillion per year globally. Companies across the world, and in New Zealand, are joining the dots and reframing the idea of ‘a waste item’ to ‘an item of value’.

The trending upcycled food sector demonstrates this perfectly, using food surplus and waste to create new products. By using food from early stages of the food supply chain that is not necessarily palatable in its current form, upcycled food has the potential to add $46.5 bn to the economy. Major global food retailers such as Whole Food Markets have ranked upcycled food as one of the top 10 food trends for 2021. Watch this space because upcycled foods are already available in New World and PAK’nSAVE and new upcycled products are due to launch later in the year.

Shifting from volume to value

Grace Ashman, Sustainability Lead, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise

2020 showed us what the world looked like when all sorts of human activity came almost to a halt. Papatūānuku was given a chance to breathe but it came at a terrible cost for people and communities across the world.

2021 will be about how we start again, and because everything has a sustainability impact, every choice will now need to be intentional, especially in export businesses. Buyers and decision-makers in markets around the world will be much less willing to accept business as usual or the way that things have ‘always’ been done – they saw businesses reinvent their activities within days or weeks, in some cases, during 2020.

New Zealand exporters have an opportunity to shift from volume to value during the global recovery period and highlight their products and services as being good for the world. To achieve that in 2021 and beyond, they’ll need to firmly embed sustainability in their business models and increasingly learn from Māori principles around intergenerational value and regenerative resource use.

Making a clear and genuine commitment to sustainability will become critical for success in many of our key export markets, as consumers look beyond products and services to actively monitor the choices a business makes – what they do, what value they offer, and the impact that they choose to have on the environment, employment, community welfare, diversity and inclusion, and human health.

Harnessing the power of the ocean

Jemma McCowan, General Manager Brands and Sustainability, New Zealand King Salmon

With many consumers now acknowledging the link between a global pandemic and our increasing advance into nature, markets that have traditionally been more interested in food safety and traceability are now asking questions about sustainable practices for the environment. This can only be good for reinforcing support for sustainable businesses and identifying systems-based solutions to protect and restore biodiversity.

Harnessing the power of the ocean around New Zealand for sustainable nutrition and carbon sequestration could be a game changer for New Zealand which has the fourth largest marine economic zone in the world. But, if we don’t make the right choices now, our ocean will not be able to deliver. In 2021, we expect that Kiwis will hear more about the opportunities for open ocean aquaculture in New Zealand, a pioneering industry initiative that could be NZ’s greenest primary industry in future.

More conversations will be needed in 2021 to help New Zealand exporters find the balance in their transport strategies with a view to tackling emissions. We are a high value export community, delivering returns back into the New Zealand economy – often in regions which really need the economic boost. But, our premium advantage in global markets is often built on speed to market for highly perishable food products. Technology to deliver premium food in other formats, more sustainable air freight solutions, and balancing the portfolio by geography and product will be on the agenda in 2021.

We’ll also be keeping an eye on the advancement of plant protein technology – but we still expect to see more pescatarians, flexitarians, “seagans” appearing as consumers continue to seek healthy alternatives to red meat.

Regenerative environment

Lisa Ridehalgh, Communications Manager, Foundation North

For Foundation North, when we think about sustainability and our actions for 2021, we will be guided by the goals within our strategic plan – in particular the focus area we call regenerative environment.

A regenerative environment approach supports a deeper understanding of the relationship between people and Te Taiao (the environment). We support joined-up approaches to conserving, restoring and renewing the environment so that Te Taiao and people can flourish together. Initiatives proposed by tangata whenua are our priority.

We support activity that will lead to:

  • Ecosystems and communities being renewed and regenerated
  • Mātauranga Māori (indigenous knowledge, practices and approaches) being recognised, valued and implemented
  • Tino rangatiratanga – community-led action for Te Taiao
  • Connection and access to Te Taiao

Our warm wishes for a happy and safe 2021 to our communities of Tāmaki Makaurau and Te Tai Tokerau.