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In 2020, businesses pivoted, crumbled, survived, evolved, and overcame under the sheer quantity and influence of unprecedented disruption and external events. COVID, climate change, and racial justice movements all catalyzed and amplified necessary change. Many businesses evolved to meet the moment.


Here is a summary of HBR’s top 10 stories and themes that impacted businesses’ path forward into 2021 and beyond:

  1. Sustainable development was negatively impacted by Covid – Reversals were reported in almost every indicator of the July UN report on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — including a rise in extreme poverty, underemployment, and unemployment. Greenhouse gas emissions were the only improvement area with a drop of about 7%; however, both private and public organizations will need to work even harder on climate change initiatives.
  2. Business leadership helped the world address pandemic needs – Innovative partnerships were formed, supply chains were adjusted, and facilities were converted in an effort to provide essentials for the global community.
  3. Companies need to revise and resolve shortcomings – Many employees experienced job loss through furloughs and layoffs. Meanwhile, some corporations closed locations and/or filed for bankruptcy while ensuring executives received full compensation or bonuses.
  4. Organizations grew more ambitious about climate and sustainability – Regeneration and carbon sequestration, as well as biodiversity goals and conservation initiatives, scaled up as enterprises considered land use and footprint solutions.
  5. Fossil fuels continued to decline in relevance – 90% of the new electricity generation added globally in 2020 was renewable energy; clean energy is on track to replace coal as the largest source by 2025.
  6. Investors continued to seek more knowledge and action around ESG – Banks are moving fossil fuel funding to ESG and impact investments and more companies are taking an interest in integrating ESG considerations into strategic operations.
  7. The business world supported “Black Lives Matter” – In both words and actions, companies committed to raising equitability and inclusion initiatives, as well as pledging to buy from and for minority communities.
  8. Corporate responsibility expanded – More companies considered all stakeholders – including communities and employees – and held leadership to higher accountability for “impact.”
  9. Companies defended democracy and pillars of society – Many from the private sector took action to circumvent the spread of misinformation and launch get-out-the-vote campaigns. Extra points for giving employees paid time off to vote.
  10. More organizations are asking for a reset on capitalism – A pandemic demonstrated the distinct need for social and physical infrastructure investments. Many companies took steps towards embracing living wages as part of the supply chain.

2020’s disruption was jarring but the response by individuals, organizations, and communities was inspiring. We found that businesses can pivot very quickly when it is required and is also capable of readjusting their operations to inhabit a more equitable, responsible position in the world.