Keeping transformation on track: Navigating key trends shaping corporate sustainability in 2024

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28 February, 2024


WBCSD insights



James Gomme

For many of us in the field of corporate sustainability, the first few weeks of every year are inevitably characterized by an inbox or LinkedIn feed chock full of reports and articles highlighting an often overwhelming array of critical trends and developments that stand to impact our efforts in the year ahead.

Rarely has the flow of information been quite so torrential as this year, as our sustainability endeavors unfold against a backdrop of ever-growing volatility and complexity. And yet, at the same time, rarely has there been such an overwhelming sensation that we are approaching a tipping point when it comes to our efforts to deliver exponential change.

To support members and partners in navigating the headwinds and tailwinds that look set to take flight in 2024, WBCSD has compiled a short briefing document holding up a mirror to the discourse around corporate sustainability that has kicked off the year.

Drawing on an analysis of over 50 reports, articles and interviews published in recent weeks, this briefing extrapolates ten key cross-cutting themes as follows:

1) Delivering transformation in a volatile and fragmented world

Efforts to deliver sustainable development in 2024 will be conducted against a backdrop of continued and emerging geopolitical tension and conflict, as well as an uncertain and predominantly gloomy economic outlook.

With no end yet in sight to the war in Ukraine, the prospect of a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Gaza also remains elusive, with several potential pathways for escalation into a broader regional war also a reality.  Conflict will continue to fan inflationary flames, with many commentators predicting that interest rates will remain high and the World Bank forecasting GDP growth will slow for a third straight year. 

More people will be going to the polls in 2024 than at any other time in modern history, with national elections scheduled to be held in countries that are home to 4.2 billion people.

This election “super-year” will generate regulatory and policy uncertainty, presenting the business community with challenges when it comes to long-term strategic planning. This highly politicized environment is also likely to see ESG increasingly leveraged as a partisan issue, as populist candidates tap into and stoke an unfolding backlash when it comes to policies relating to issues from climate change to social justice. 

3) Reaching a tipping point on accountability

2024 looks set to usher in what ISSB Chair Emmanuel Faber calls a “tipping point” on corporate accountability on environmental and social sustainability issues.

The entry into force of the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) means that almost 50,000 companies will be subject to mandatory reporting in the 2024 financial year around topics such as climate and human rights, while the SEC in the US is also set to release its own set of rules later in the year.

Escalating emphasis on accountability looks set to spell the beginning of the end for greenwashing, with companies increasingly having to back up sustainability ambitions with solid data.

4) Supply chains are under more scrutiny than ever before

New disclosure requirements in 2024 will also put global supply chains under the spotlight like never before.  Companies will need to sharpen their focus on both environmental and social performance throughout the value chain, and take action to adequately understand, monitor and engage with suppliers at different tiers. This will require collaboration as well as a variety of innovative technological solutions.

5) Time for innovation

While it will be critical for businesses to ensure that they comply with emerging legislation in terms of disclosures, efforts to realize transformation will also hinge on 2024 seeing a substantial shift towards a more entrepreneurial mindset when it comes to corporate action on sustainability. More and more companies are realizing that sustainability is not just about achieving their net-zero targets but also about solving challenges for other organizations, which has enormous potential to be a driver of long-term value creation. 

6) Sustainability by nature

Nature will continue be a critical topic for business in 2024. More and more companies are responding to calls to set nature targets and to step up nature-related disclosures – particularly in the run up to the COP16 on nature in Colombia in October. As momentum for nature-positive strategies grows, “nature intelligence” is also predicted to become a key area of focus as companies strive to acquire the right nature-related insights and data to inform decision-making. 

7) The urgent need for adaptation and resilience

As efforts to mitigate climate impacts through emissions reduction continue, 2024 will see the urgency of adapting to the physical risks of the climate crisis come into sharper focus. As the El Nino climate pattern unfolds during the first half of the year, we are likely to see extreme weather events at a potentially unprecedented scale. With political uncertainty rife in parts of the world, it will often fall on business to lead the charge when it comes to investing in crucial adaptation efforts.

8) Answering tough questions on social justice

Inequality continues to generate headlines and is likely to swing further into focus in a year with over 50 elections, a sluggish global economy, and potentially unprecedented climate impacts. As discussions around the development of a Taskforce on Inequality and Social-related Financial Disclosures (TISFD) continue to crystalize, it will be necessary for businesses to become more familiar with the steps they can take to address the mounting systemic risk that is global inequality, as laid out by the Business Commission to Tackle Inequality.

9) Closing the sustainability skills gap

There is mounting recognition that the transformation that we need to see across the global industry in support of sustainable development will only be possible if it is also supported by inner transformation – the purposeful and persistent development of skills and qualities at the individual level.

This will be essential not only for the long-term success of the business, but also to ensure that the workforces of today and tomorrow are empowered to thrive in the evolving world of work.

10) AI: savior or supervillain for sustainable development?

AI looks set to be a permanent source of debate throughout 2024. But what does it mean in the context of efforts to realize sustainable development?  As with all things AI, there is a challenging answer.

On the one hand, AI looks set to play an essential part in turbo-charging efforts to mitigate climate change. On the flip side, AI also carries its own environmental impacts in terms of emissions, water use, and waste, which must be managed carefully.  And, of course, there is a wide range of social impacts associated with AI that continue to provoke scrutiny and concern in terms of how it will impact the labor market, privacy, cybersecurity, misinformation, etc.

For now, the only certain thing is that AI will continue to be adopted, improved and potentially regulated throughout 2024. New ground-breaking uses (and abuses) are no doubt just around the corner.

For more information, please refer to the Briefing on key trends for 2024 here.