Sustainability Trends That Will Move the Needle on Climate Change in 2021
How will we mitigate climate change in 2021? Here are our predictions. | Kenneth Koh / Unsplash

5 Sustainability Trends That Will Move the Needle on Climate Change in 2021

What will 2021 bring in terms of the environment, sustainability, and climate science?

2021 cannot come soon enough. It seems, collectively, we’re banking on the year ahead to be an improvement to the mess that is 2020, and in many senses, this optimism is well-founded.

The pandemic further underscored the myriad issues that contribute to the climate crisis. And with a COVID-19 vaccine serving as a possible light at the end of this months-long tunnel, there’s hope that the new year will cement a serious commitment to fixing the damage we’ve inflicted on Planet Earth. 

When parts of society shut down in the throes of the coronavirus, slices of the natural world began restoring themselves: Major cities around the world saw astounding drops in air pollution during periods of lockdown, which, among many other species, benefitted the bee population; in the absence of industrial pollution, water quality improved; as human crowds dwindled in once highly occupied spaces, wildlife experienced a restored peace and quiet, and some even posed for (discreetly snapped) photos. A physical veil was lifted. 

So instead of “returning to normal,” which was never really possible, we’ll see a chrysalis and renewed devotion to environmental sustainability. Here are five changes we expect to define 2021 in the realm of sustainability. 

1. Protein Will Be Completely Reimagined 

The McPlant is coming. While McDonald’s is hardly the first fast food chain to launch a plant-based menu option (some would argue it was late to the game), the world’s most popular fast food chain has a unique power to influence the industry at large (remember when the food giant committed to cage-free eggs so the entire egg industry basically had to do the same?). 

The continuing surge in meat-free protein options symbolizes all kinds of important inflection points; one that shouldn’t be ignored is the way it’s redefining the meaning of “protein.” In the past, protein was synonymous with meat. But consumers are increasingly embracing protein from plants and companies are working to meet this increased demand.

Major food brand Nestlé is banking on plant-based foods and is continuously making them more accessible: In 2019, it debuted DiGiorno Rising Crust Meatless Supreme and Stouffer’s Meatless Lasagna in the frozen food aisle, and there’s undoubtedly more to come. “I think potentially all of our brands have potential to go more plant-based as we adapt to what our consumers are asking for,” Ryan Riddle, R&D specialist of vegetarian meal solutions at Nestlé USA, recently told FoodDive

Perdue’s “Chicken Plus” frozen nuggets, which are 50 percent chicken and 50 percent plant-based protein from Better Meat, won the no. 1 spot on Food Network’s ranking of chicken nuggets. It is momentous that a blended product earned such a title, and is only a hint at what’s to come. Meanwhile, chicken giant Tyson Foods dropped its blended burger line and removed eggwhites from its plant-based nuggets, making them completely vegan.

Plant-based meat has made great strides for sustainability, but we can and will do even better. The learnings of fungi fermentation (think Quorn) is already working as a roadmap for the future. Microbial startup company Nature’s Fynd, which discovered a microbe in the geothermal springs of the US’s Yellowstone National Park that can support protein production, recently closed a $45 million debt round; it’s aiming to launch consumer products sometime in 2021. What’s so special about microbes? They require very few resources to reproduce and their to reproduce asexually through doubling means that you can make more protein in a matter of hours — which is enormous when compared to the time it takes for a cow to give birth to a calf. 

2. Circularity Will Be Everywhere

What goes around comes around — and that’s a good thing for sustainability. Circularity and the concept of a “closed-loop circle” is not new; communities have been upcycling, repurposing, and passing on goods as long as they’ve existed. But in 2021, it’ll be safe to say that circularity officially hit the mainstream. Consumers have expressed their desire for the things they buy to do less harm, and, from kitchen tools to fashion brands to Christmas trees, manufacturers are delivering without compromising on convenience.

Take Togu Knives, a company that provides its members with a set of sharp knives, replacing them every eight weeks with a freshly sharpened pair. The company then restores the used pair to send off to another subscription member.

“Togu Knives relies on the concept of a circular economy; by maintaining quality knives we can keep them in use longer and eliminate waste that comes from products with a shorter lifespan,” co-founder Cyrus Elias says. According to a report from Riedel Marketing Group, the average U.S. household never sharpens their knives, instead of purchasing a new set and tossing the old ones every three years. Togu prevents knives from going to the landfill by resharpening and repairing used blades to then return back to the kitchen. 

Collaborative consumption — or the sharing of consumer goods — rejects the claim that consumers are “attached to the ownership of objects,” Elias says, adding that companies like Zipcar and Rent the Runway (pre-Covid) prove that we’re more than willing to own less stuff. In 2021, less will be more. 

In fashion, the need to reuse, reduce and reuse again is more acute than ever. The industry is heavily responsible for environmental devastation, which accounts for about 10 percent of global carbon emissions and close to 20 percent of wastewater. 

Players from every corner of the fashion world are working to level out the industry’s impact on the planet. Los Angeles brand Oddli, for example, makes its apparel entirely out of deadstock, which is excess fabric by other makers that goes unused (and often into the landfill), adding up to an estimated 92 million tons of annual textile waste, Fashionista reports. Similarly, Psychic Outlaw breathes new life into family heirlooms and blankets that would otherwise go untouched by transforming quilts into beautiful coats. 

Big brands will follow where the money goes, and according to The State of Fashion 2021 report by McKinsey, the money’s going to sustainability, for which consumers will continue to have heightened expectations and demands. But it’s bigger than just trends. In November, the European Union backed the New Cotton Project, in which, over the next three years, Finnish biotechnology group Infinited Fiber Company will use its patented technology to regenerate textile waste into cellulose-based textile fibers that look and feel like cotton. Adidas and H&M Group are two of the participating brands that will use the renewed waste in its manufacturing. The goal here is that in this imagined sustainable future, textiles will never go to waste; instead they’ll flow within a circular economy, in which they’ll be reused, recycled and then returned to groups like Infinited Fiber Company to make new garments. 

3. People in Power Will Show Support (& Maybe Even Lead)

The bad news is that “we have hit rock bottom when it comes to environmental protection,” says Judith Enck, the president of Beyond Plastic and former EPA regional administrator under the Obama administration. But the good news? “It can only get better.” 

Grassroots movements have been at the heart of environmental momentum, particularly in the U.S.  But moving into 2021, we’ll be able to rely on federal policies to enact change. Environmentalism is no longer a talking point, but a required focus of officials elected to power: Before the November election, a majority of U.S. voters said climate change was an important issue in deciding who to vote for, according to Pew Research

There’s a lot of hope for environmental justice under a Biden-Harris administration, and it’s not just about getting things back in order. Yes, it’ll be important for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement: only behind China as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. will be a key player in the global initiative to combat climate change.  

It will also be critical for the president-elect to tackle more environmental issues than any president has in the past, as the climate crisis grows increasingly dire. One potential win? Biden could sign on to the Basel Convention, a multilateral international agreement in which over 200 countries agree to not export plastic waste — including the kind deemed “recyclable” — to other countries, says Enck. 

In several ways, Biden has already articulated his commitment to combating climate change. In November, he appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry to a special presidential envoy on climate change. Kerry will be the first climate official to ever hold a seat on the National Security Council. 

Harris will come to the White House with some environmental history: as a U.S. Senator, she is currently a co-sponsor of the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, and she is expected to prioritize these sort of initiatives in her new role as VP. 

Across the pond, leaders of the UN saw how the pandemic toppled economic and societal progress, and all but demanded that environmental restoration be written into the blueprints for rebuilding. “The current crisis is an unprecedented wake-up call,” said Secretary-General António Guterres. “We need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.” Guterres proposed six climate-positive actions for governments to take as they begin to initiate recovery plans. Only as the world comes out of lockdown and gets healthy with the promising Covid-19 vaccines will we be able to see if the UN puts these proposals to action. 

There is already some drive in Europe around plastic reduction. Earlier this year, 20 European countries signed on to the European Plastics Pact, meant to speed up the process of designing a collective circular economy for plastics. One target goal of the Pact is for plastics companies to achieve at least 30 percent recycled plastics in new products and packaging by 2025. 

4. Greenwashing Will Reach New Heights

The rise of greenwashing is a sign that consumer demands are being heard but not met — and it’s only getting more popular. A greater appeal for sustainable and humane practices inevitably leads to false promises and muddy capitalistic workarounds. In 2021, you’ll see more labels that claim products are “sustainable” without any justification, and you’ll see “plant-based” plastered on the boxes of cookies and chips in an effort to convince consumers that purchasing such products is the more virtuous choice. 

Greenwashing goes deeper than the snack aisle. A 2020 report from the Changing Markets Foundation reveals some of the world’s biggest polluters, including Coca-Cola, Mars and PepsiCo, made voluntary commitments to “clean up” the plastic and chemical supply chain only as a tactic to distract consumers and to delay progressive legislation. 

None of this is meant to derail your commitment to more conscious living, but rather, to serve as a reminder that as we make progress in the fight against climate change, we’ll need to be extra vigilant and skeptical of promises that seem too good to be true. Fortunately, we don’t have to go at it alone: watchdog and government groups like Corporate Accountability, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Competition and Markets Authority work hard to protect us from such derisiveness. 

5. We’ll See More Green Innovations In Buildings & Cities

If you’ve got a small backyard and the willingness to get a little dirty, it’s pretty simple to compost at home and prevent food waste from piling up in landfills and warming the planet. For city dwellers, however, the task is tougher, and with varying degrees of access to municipal composting programs, tools like Sepura are coming for the eco-building space. 

Sepura, which made Time’s best inventions list in 2020, transforms the kitchen sink garbage disposal into a composting system. It’s as simple as scraping food from the plate into the sink; the system separates liquids from solids, collecting those compostable scraps underneath the sink in a stink-free bin (freeing up space in the freezer if that’s where you tend to store your scraps until dropoff day). 

Restaurants and food suppliers will also invest in green technology that reduces waste and promotes sustainable supply chains — doing so supports their bottom lines and leaves them better prepared if something like an economy-razing pandemic were to ever rear its head again. Sepanta Bagherpour, Nando’s USA spokesperson, said the restaurant’s sustainable supply model — which includes sourcing food locally — enabled Nando’s to maintain operations during the pandemic. 

“Besides giving farmers access to the latest farming techniques, quality seedlings and finance, we also give them a fixed outlet for their crop, commit to a predictable demand, and provide a premium for every kilogram of chillies harvested,” Bagherpour told SmartBrief“It’s the ultimate sustainability model.”

Because Nando’s knows its customers prioritize sustainability, it was able to act quickly during state-mandated lockdowns, according to Bagherpour. Instead of freezing up and ultimately wasting excess food, Nando’s distributed excess food to feed health care workers, Nando’s employees and other out-of-work restaurant industry workers for free. 

As kitchens grow toward greener pastures, so too with the spaces around them. Urban life will become increasingly more sustainable because there’s no other choice. Across the globe, city planners are committing to the concept of the 15-minute city, in which residents are able to meet most of their needs within a walk or bike ride from their homes. In other words, our cities will be designed as one-stop shops where communities and businesses thrive on the same curve the environment does. 

The approach inherently cuts transportation pollution while prioritizing nature-based solutions like parks, green walls and rooftops and permeable pavements. These will help reduce the risks of extreme climate conditions like heat, drought and flooding, while simultaneously providing access for communities to share and enjoy public spaces.  Experts liken the design of 15-minute cities to that of Paris, which sounds très bien, wouldn’t you agree?