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Walking the Talk
Purpose & the Stakeholder Factor:
10 Trends for 2021 and Beyond

To capture the top trends of 2021, Porter Novelli reviewed and analyzed a year’s worth of Purpose-driven and stakeholder news, activities, campaigns and announcements to deliver the latest in stakeholder intelligence. Here are our 10 need-to-know trends for today and tomorrow.

As the world rushes to the conclusion of another tumultuous year, it is time yet again to take stock on the progress achieved, the innovations unlocked, and the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Amidst the great resignation, new COVID-19 variants, an increase in violence against certain communities (including AAPI and Jewish communities, among others), and on the heels of a heated COP26, business leaders are being called upon to deliver not only profit, but value for all stakeholders. What has become very clear over the past 20+ months is that the world has shifted dramatically; and with it, businesses have been forced to behave differently — not only to meet new stakeholder demands, but to survive.

In today’s culturally conscious and rapidly evolving society, successful businesses will be the ones that are profoundly curious about the needs of their stakeholders and are always listening to the latest marketplace intelligence. And not just business intelligence — but social and emotional intelligence, as well. A new playbook for business is here and businesses must embrace this directive in order to thrive. The businesses that take this moment and meet it as an opportunity — not a risk or threat — will unlock new audiences, greater market shares, and myriad occasions for innovation.

To capture the top trends of 2021, Porter Novelli reviewed and analyzed a year’s worth of Purpose-driven and stakeholder news, activities, campaigns and announcements to deliver the latest in stakeholder intelligence. Through this, we distilled our 10 need-to-know trends for today and tomorrow:

1. Business becomes fourth branch of government

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The lines between business interests and political interests have become increasingly blurred — and more and more, stakeholders are demanding that businesses speak out around specific legislation at a state and national level. Indeed, 70 percent of Americans believe the private sector has become a more central figure in influencing government legislation.

At the dawn of 2021 and in the wake of the US Capitol insurrection, we saw myriad companies pledge to stop donating to members of Congress who participated or encouraged the acts of January 6. As the year unfolded, other companies spoke out on divisive political issues — from the more than 100 business leaders who signed a civic alliance letter in support of voters’ rights — to specific initiatives from companies such as Bumble and its relief fund for Texas women seeking abortions.

2. Tapping tech for climate solutions

When this summer’s IPCC report cried a “code red for humanity,” it became increasingly clear the urgency to address the climate crisis. This was echoed by 73 percent of Americans who say they are more concerned than ever about the impacts of the climate crisis. In an effort to accelerate advancement, this year we saw companies unite with tech and science giants to create new solutions to environmental challenges.

From Tide’s collaboration with NASA to create detergent for water-scarce areas — to lululemon’s work with LanzaTech to make the first fabric from recycled carbon emissions — new partnerships are leading much-needed technological advancements. And in a culmination of 10 years of research, Carbios, L’Oréal, Nestlé Waters, PepsiCo and Suntory Beverage & Food Europe announced the successful production of “the world’s first food-grade PET plastic bottles produced entirely from enzymatically recycled plastic.”

3. Refocusing on climate through a justice lens

While the entire world reels from the impacts of the climate crisis, it is also clear that marginalized communities are being disproportionately impacted. Indeed, new analysis by the EPA found that “American Indians and Alaska Natives are 48 percent more likely than other groups to live in areas that will be inundated by flooding from sea-level rise” and Black individuals are “40 percent more likely than other groups to live in places where extreme temperatures will cause more deaths.”

Now, companies are looking at climate through the lens of equitable action — case in point: TAZO Tea Company’s Tree Corps initiative, which is hiring local community members to plant trees, with the goal of helping to combat climate change while creating new jobs in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities of color. Further, a bulk of JPMorgan’s $2.5 trillion investment to address climate change will go specifically to investments to underserved communities.

4. From statements to action items

In 2020, we saw companies of every shape and size make declarations in their support to address racial justice. Companies, fueled by stakeholder demands, are going beyond the statement to do actual work within their businesses and industries. This is especially important when one considers 63 percent of Americans believe companies can no longer make a statement of support without also showing their actions to address social-justice issues.

In addition to new moderation and content guidelines to make Pinterest a safe and inclusive space, the social media platform built a $500,000 Creator Fund in April to uplift artists from underrepresented communities, paired with strategy consulting and fair compensation for content. Also this year, Disney committed to centering each and every partnership around multicultural components and inclusive creative.

5. Rethinking employee benefits

Given the great resignation is still taking place, and with more employees rethinking where they work and why, it’s no surprise companies are reimagining how to attract and retain great talent. Some companies leaned-in on traditional benefits, while others took new approaches.

This year, we saw both Walmart and Target commit to cover 100 percent colleague tuition for its workers; while Spanx CEO Sara Blakely rewarded staff by providing every employee with two first-class plane tickets and $10,000 cash. Meanwhile, White Castle listened to its employees when redesigning its uniforms, which now include durags.

6. Accessibility in spaces for all

There are 1.2 billion people in the world with disabilities, representing 15 percent of the global population; yet, many individuals still face systemic barriers to participation in everyday activities. While we have seen many brands enter the adaptive design space to better serve people of all disabilities through product innovation, a new trend has developed to ensure brick-and-mortar spaces are more accessible and inclusive, as well.

Planet Fitness partnered with Paralyzed Veterans of America, National Council on Independent Living, and the American Council of the Blind to add accessible exercise equipment to all of its gyms; while AMC Theatres announced it will offer on-screen captions at 240 of its theaters. Disney also created enhancements to its Disability Access Service at parks, allowing individuals to enroll for accommodations 30 days before arrival through a live video chat with a cast member.

7. Making space for mental health

It’s no surprise the ongoing effects of the pandemic are taking a huge toll on mental health globally. In fact, in the US, depression rates have more than tripled from pre-pandemic numbers. As individuals and organizations struggle with this reality, businesses are addressing the issue head (and mind) on.

Stemming from the insight that more than half of people in the country have not used their vacation time during the pandemic, Jameson encouraged individuals to take St. Patrick’s Day off from work — and paid each person $50 to do so. Meanwhile, Pinterest prioritized emotional wellbeing during Mental Health Awareness Month by highlighting content from mental health advocates and creating a $10 million commitment to “fund organizations that are increasing awareness of mental health and wellbeing challenges.” Finally, over 200 businesses — including Univision, Uber, Kenneth Cole and NBCUniversal — joined together to create the inaugural Mental Health Action Day on May 20.

8. Putting consumers at the heart of circularity

The concept of a circular economy is certainly nothing new in the sustainability world, but what was novel in 2021 was the sheer amount of product launches that put reusability and circularity in front of consumers. This is increasingly important as 71 percent of Americans want companies to help them take more sustainable actions in their everyday lives.

This year, we saw Dove launch a stainless steel, refillable deodorant; and McDonald’s and Loop create a reusable cup program in the UK. And ensuring consumers have a choice to go circular, beauty brand Ulta partnered with Loop to create the first-ever global reuse platform that allows customers to shop specifically for beauty and personal care products in “durable, sustainable packaging which will be refilled and reused.”

9. Funding the green bond boom

To meet the huge advancements that must be made for climate-crisis mitigation and adaptation, major investments need to be made in this space. This year, we saw a number of companies — both in and outside the finance industry — issue green bonds to accelerate investment and progress in environmental finance. Indeed, some experts estimate the sustainable finance space will see 55 percent growth by year-end.

This year, Walmart issued its first-ever green bond — putting $2 billion to fund “projects enabling the company to reach its sustainability goals;” while Verizon, which has funded green bond projects in the past, announced another $1 billion to renewable energy projects. PNC Financial Services Group also invested in environmental finance with a five-year, $20 billion commitment to the pillars of green building, renewable energy, clean transportation, and environmental sustainability-linked bonds and loans.

10. From moment in time to all the time

In the past, it was common practice for companies to focus campaigns, efforts and announcement around affinity months and days — whether that be Black History Month in February, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May or Pride in June. Yet, it’s increasingly clear that commitments that only see the light of day one month (or day) a year are falling far short in impact and authenticity.

Now, brands are celebrating communities all year long — whether that be Doritos' viral Día de los Muertos ad, which is part of the brand’s #PrideAllYear initiative to uplift the LGBTQIA+ community beyond the month of June — or Target’s commitment, which spans beyond Black History Month to spend over $2 billion with Black-owned businesses by 2025.

While many have been sold on the concept of purpose and stakeholder capitalism for quite a while now, the time has come to put this into practice. We’ve gone from a theoretical belief that business must operate differently, to a very tangible and real moment where companies must be prepared to turn their convictions into measurable action — to not only stand for more than what they sell but prove exactly how. As these trends show, statements must be backed with movement and commitments must in turn reveal results. As we head into 2022, it will become increasingly imperative for companies to close their say-do gap — to continue to bring stakeholders along for the ride.