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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


January 2018 – In this trends briefing, you’ll find the condensed views and predictions of more than 40 Directors, Fellows, and Senior Associates affiliated to the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), supported by a survey of the wider CISL global Network of over 8,000 senior leaders and leading practitioners representing every industry on every continent.

Business and sustainability trends 2018Download the briefing

The business and sustainability trends briefing explores:

  • Volatility is the new normal: From disruptive technologies to political uncertainty, the future is chaotic and it is here to stay.
  • Sustainability to shape the face of business: Growing public consciousness of sustainability issues and political leadership gaps will increasingly open the way for business to step up to the challenge of sustainability leadership, and either lead, adapt or fail.
  • Enduring loss and damage from extreme weather: After the unprecedented climate events of 2017, vulnerable cities, countries and people will face yet more extreme and disruptive weather events, with the potential to impact business though value chain disruption and stranded assets, and contribute to social unrest. 
  • Human versus machine: Growing levels of automation will not only begin to transform the future of business but also the future of work.
  • China and the global shift to the East: The re-election of President Xi Jinping has given China stability in a turbulent world, and has reinforced the state’s mandate to address climate change at a time when other world leaders have faltered over sustainability.
  • The end of an era for plastics: Packaging is set to be key battleground in addressing the environmental impacts of business on oceans, land and air.
  • A watershed year for transparency: Anticipating the recommendations for reporting climate-related financial risks from the Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), companies such as ExxonMobil have faced investor and public pressure to voluntarily improve risk disclosure. This could fire the gun for greater transparency in other parts of business such as executive pay, gender equality and tax arrangements.
  • Life after coal: The energy revolution is reaching its climax as the switch to renewables and electricity is unstoppable.

This briefing draws on the insight and expertise of the CISL Network to identify some of the sustainability trends business leaders need to be aware of in order to drive meaningful change that will lead to a more sustainable global economy. The CISL Network is made up of over 8,000 senior leaders and leading practitioners who represent business, the public sector and civil society in every industry and on every continent.

CISL have also collaborated with online learning specialists Get Smarter to offer an online short course in Business Sustainability Management. The course gives working professionals the tools to argue for, strategise and implement sustainable business practices. Successful completion of the course grants students access to the CISL Network.


Please refer to this publication as: University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). (2018, January). Eight sustainability trends that will define 2018. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.


Do you have the skills required to respond to global sustainability trends? Find out more about the Business Sustainability Management online course, our Executive Education programmes and part-time Graduate courses

Authors and acknowledgments

The trends identified in this report are based on input from over 40 CISL Directors, Senior Associates and Ambassadors. This is supported by a survey of the wider CISL Network, which was completed by more than 300 Network members.

The report was authored by Donna Bowater, with support of the editorial team of Zoë Loughlin, James Cole, Clare Tilley, Alexandra Brunner and Michael Hoevel. Further input was provided by Lindsay Hooper, Lucy Bruzzone and Eliot Whittington.


Copyright © 2018 University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). Some rights reserved.


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL or the wider University of Cambridge.


Published: January 2018