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Friday, 4th January 2019

Meat and dairy, plastics and fashion: edie readers outline key sustainability trends of 2019

With widespread and ferocious opposition to plastics dominating the headlines in 2018, edie asked readers for their views on which sustainability issue would be the next to pique public, policy and corporate attention. Here, we round up your thoughts.

More than 280 of you have voted in our horizon-scanning poll

More than 280 of you have voted in our horizon-scanning poll

New years are always a time of reflection, introspection and planning - for sustainability professionals and the general public alike. edie, therefore, launched a vote on Wednesday (2 January), asking readers to have their say on what the next ‘hot topics’ in the UK’s corporate sustainability sphere are likely to be.

During the poll, we scanned the horizon for five sustainability issues which could begin to have their “plastics moment” within the next 12 months – palm oil, air quality, microfibres, fashion and meat and dairy production. We then asked which of these emerging topics you believed was likely to garner the most interest by the end of 2019 – or whether plastics would still be the most widely discussed and broadly actioned issue in the field.

After more than 280 votes, edie has rounded up the three sustainability issues which you think are most likely to dominate the headlines in 2019…

1) Meat and dairy

As of Friday morning (4 January), almost one-third (30%) of poll respondents said they saw meat and dairy production as the top contender for the hot sustainability topic of 2019. Given that this week marked the start of this year’s Veganuary – a month-long campaign encouraging meat-eaters to switch to plant-based foods – this was perhaps to be expected.

Launched in 2014 by a team of environmentalists, Veganuary challenges participants to eat only vegan food for 31 days, with a view that they will change their dietary habits in the long-term.

Never ones to miss a trend, business giants ranging from McDonald's to Marks & Spencer have launched new product ranges to coincide with the event – but these launches are just the latest in a long line of moves from supermarkets, on-the-go brands and restaurant chains as consumer demand shifts.

According to the Vegan Society, the number of people identifying as vegan in the UK has increased by 350% since 2008, prompting the vast majority of the UK’s food and drink sector to explore the benefits they can reap from getting involved in the emerging alternative protein industry.

Veganuary’s campaign, meanwhile, received almost three times as many sign-ups in 2018 as it did in 2017, with 168,000 people worldwide participated. Early estimates suggest a similar trajectory for 2019, with around 300,000 people set to take part.

edie readers who voted for this topic will be pleased to know that NGO tracking and issues analysis firm SIGWATCH has also listed the livestock sector as one of the most likely to face increased scrutiny in 2019.

“Our long-term tracking shows significantly increased attention from campaigners in the last three years on ‘green vegetarianism’ – reducing meat consumption out of care for its environmental and climate impact and not only for health or ethical reasons,” SIGWATCH’s managing director Robert Blood told edie.

“The significance of this attention is that environmental campaigners constitute a much bigger lobby than either animal rights or health activists, and the ‘veggie-equals-green message’ resonates with increasing numbers of consumers, especially younger ones.”

2) Plastics (again)

If 2017 was the year of the electric vehicle (EV), then 2018 was undeniably the year of plastics action. Amid increasing consumer pressures for plastic-free products and packaging and sluggish policy changes around plastics, the UK’s business community moved to phase-out items such as straws, drinks stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds at a breakneck pace.  

Indeed, 2018 marked the launch of both WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative, which have both spurred hundreds of big-name businesses to make ambitious commitments around the reduction and recycling of their plastic packaging.

The scale of the scrutiny applied to the global plastics industry last year even led Collins Dictionary to name ‘single-use’ as its word of the year, with ‘plogging’ – a Swedish term for picking up litter while running – coming in at second place.

In the wake of these trends, more than a quarter (27%) of edie poll respondents are forecasting that plastics will remain the key area of sustainability focus for 2019.

However, the focus of the debate is starting to shift. Numerous sustainability professionals, scientists and pockets of the general public are beginning to express concerns about the potential unintended consequences of the ongoing plastic phase-out – including increased logging needed to produce paper-based alternatives, the use of edible crops for bioplastic production and the impact plastic-free packaging could have on food waste.

Similarly, SIGWATCH’s Blood has claimed that the UK has now reached “peak plastics awareness”, with green campaign groups unlikely to win over more of the general public going forward.

“We are already seeing a backlash on plastics with media commentators and even environmentalists asking if NGOs have exaggerated the problem and diverted attention and action from the much more serious issue of climate change,” Blood told edie.

3) Fashion

Fashion beat palm oil in edie’s poll to be ranked as the third most likely topic to ‘take off’ in 2019, claiming 12% of the vote. The industry is one of the largest in the world, employing around one in every seven people globally – but it is also a major contributor to pollution, carbon emissions and waste problems. 

In terms of carbon, the fashion sector currently accounts for accounts for 10% of carbon emissions, but could eat up half of the world’s carbon budget by 2050 as the global population expands. As for social sustainability, fashion is believed to be the second highest-risk industry for modern slavery after technology and employs thousands of people below their nations’ living wage.

But the issue most tangible to consumers is undoubtedly that of waste. The fashion industry is now estimated to be producing more than 100 billion garments and 20 billion shoes per year, with the majority of these products intended for fast fashion retailers. Such businesses sell low-quality garments in large quantities at low prices while updating their collections every few weeks.

As with plastics, the fast fashion industry is now facing exposes on primetime TV, new scientific studies laying bare its full negative impacts and the emergence of alternative business models. In short, the scale of the sustainability challenges the industry has been facing for years is just beginning to become common knowledge.

This interest is leading to the rapid emergence of alternative business models which champion garment repair, resale and rental over traditional cradle-to-grave systems. In the corporate sphere, several key players are already moving to alter their business models and satisfy this emerging customer demand. H&M has begun to offer repair services in three markets while VF Corporation recently started selling repaired garments through it’s The North Face brand.

Numerous designers, academics and industry representatives recently told the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) that the fashion industry is aware that its time as a cradle-to-grave sector is over – an argument that has been agreed on by brands such as Stella McCartney, H&M and ASOS. Looking to the coming months, the early signs suggest that the trend towards circular and ethically produced clothing will continue among consumers and the business sphere alike.

--- VOTE FOR YOUR SUSTAINABILITY ISSUE OF 2019 HERE ---

Sarah George