History moved fast in 2011, even as the economy was stuck in neutral, and 2012 promises to be a wild ride. Exactly how it will play out is hard to say. 2011 provides ample evidence of how difficult it is to foresee specific changes: Last January, few anticipated the Arab Spring, and Hosni Mubarak was ejected from office before the end of February. And early in 2011, any mention of the "Occupy Movement” was more likely to be considered a good name for a new indie rock band than one of the most potent political forces seen in years.

That said, there are some things we do know about 2012. The year will bring the Rio+20 conference in June, the U.S. presidential election, a leadership transfer in China, and the 25th anniversary of the Brundtland Commission’s report, all of which have great significance for sustainability. We also know that the economy in the United States and Europe will continue to be sluggish, and that rising economies like China and Brazil are also slowing down from their white-hot growth of recent years.

2012 is also BSR’s 20th anniversary. We will mark this occasion over the course of the year, and at the BSR Conference 2012, by looking back at how much progress has been made toward achieving a truly sustainable economy, and, more importantly, by looking ahead at what remains to be done.

As we reflect on two decades of the modern sustainability movement, it seems that everything has changed (awareness of sustainable business is light years ahead of where it was when BSR was founded; many people have moved out of poverty), and, at the same time, too little has changed (our planet’s warming is advancing, consumers are ambivalent at best about sustainable products and services, and markets operate on the basis of short-term value). You’ll hear more from us in 2012 about the lessons we draw from the recent past, and how we can apply them to accelerate progress in the years ahead.

In thinking about the year ahead, it is impossible to guess what events will be captured in the daily swirl of headlines and 140-character messages. We can understand our emerging world best by thinking about the underlying changes that prompt seemingly unexpected events. The most prominent happenings of 2011 show this to be true. The Arab Spring, which few predicted, was enabled by social media, which we all experience daily. The Occupy Movement caught many off guard, even though we have experienced years of economic stagnation and rising income inequality. On the one hand, these events seemed to erupt out of nowhere, but in many ways they seem entirely predictable in hindsight.

2012 will be shaped by fundamental changes that we can see clearly, while the specific ways these changes will play out is anyone’s guess. And even though many of the underlying trends shaping our world today are difficult, each of them presents great opportunities for business:

  • Chronic economic weakness will redefine sustainability priorities: The weak economy will push the question of economic equity to the forefront of public debate, and that question should be considered more seriously by business. The sluggish economy may mean that more mindshare is given to “responsible business,” as questions of economic equity between high and low earners and between generations get more heated. Look for executive pay to get more attention. Companies can anticipate the public mood by embracing transparency and collaboration. And businesses that find ways to achieve—and demonstrate—progress toward big sustainability goals will have the first claim on public trust that is in such short supply.
  • Faith in government to provide answers will continue to fall: It is highly unlikely that Rio+20 will deliver a template for sustainable economic development. Combined with economic and political gridlock in Brussels and Washington, another “failed summit” will reinforce the sense that public governance is not up to the task of addressing our most pressing problems. While disappointing, this presents an opportunity for business to build coalitions with civil society to find broad-based solutions to sustainability challenges. Indeed, it is likely that companies and NGOs will state the clearest vision at Rio, and this will provide a useful antidote to political wrangling among states that haven’t figured out global governance in the multipolar world.
  • Sustainable consumption will move from abstract idea to practical solution: As I said when opening the BSR Conference 2011, sustainable consumption becomes much more relevant in a weak economy. In 2012, companies should declare war on waste, working internally and with consumers to reduce the massive amounts of energy and food that is wasted in the “developed” economies.
  • Technology will ride to the rescue: Faith in technology can easily bleed into science fiction. But in 2012, the “internet of things,” the “quantified self,” and “augmented reality” will ensure that we have the information we need to achieve massive reductions of our footprint as individuals and institutions. And increased visibility into the sustainability attributes of everyday products will benefit companies that take this seriously, and leave others behind. The move by large companies like Nike to create internal venture funds to develop new products that leapfrog incremental progress speaks volumes about the potential for market-changing technologies in the years ahead.
  • The NGO world will face huge uncertainty—and opportunity: The changes roiling the business world also impact the world’s biggest NGOs. Social media can both empower NGOs and render them superfluous. Neither the Arab Spring nor the Occupy Movement emerged from pre-existing institutions. Time magazine recognized the significance of this when it named “The Protester” its Person of the Year for 2011. If 2011 was the year social movements “crowdsourced” NGOs right off the stage, 2012 may be the year NGOs amplify their influence through the organizing power of social media. Companies that have just begun to acclimate themselves to working with increasingly familiar NGOs will need to mine social media to understand who’s saying what, and be ready to engage with new groups and coalitions that emerge overnight.

BSR has some exciting plans for the year ahead.    

We are more convinced than ever that a fully sustainable economy depends on promoting collaboration that delivers systemic solutions. This includes collaboration inside individual companies; within business eco-systems like value chains; and across business, civil society, and the public sector. We are investing in new initiatives and new capacity to help our member companies navigate, anticipate, and shape our fast-changing world.

In 2011, we added resources focused on stakeholder collaboration, human rights, and energy/climate, and we will continue to emphasize these areas in 2012. We will also launch a new effort on the “Future of Fuels,” which brings together corporate fuel purchasers to understand the total sustainability impacts of conventional and unconventional fossil fuels, and to identify opportunities to collaborate with producers and stakeholders to drive more sustainable solutions.

We also opened an office in São Paulo and have been delighted to see the immediate traction we’ve experienced with new member companies from Brazil, as well as member companies from the United States, Europe, and Asia who are intensely interested in Brazil. We look forward to participating in Rio+20 in our new backyard.

BSR will also support broad developments in the field of sustainability beyond the Rio summit. We are, for example, contributing to the evolution of sustainability reporting through my participation in the International Integrated Reporting Committee, and through my colleagues’ involvement in the development of the Global Reporting Initiative’s G4 reporting guidelines.

While the precise events that will mark 2012 are yet to be revealed, one thing is certain: Our commitment to our mission—working with business to create a just and sustainable world—is as critical and inspiring as when BSR first started. The story we write together, each and every day of the year, may generate fewer headlines than the Rio summit, but it has the potential to change the world.