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Who is leading in sustainability – European or American companies?
It’s an open question, and the answer largely depends on who you ask. While American observers generally credit Europeans with being at the forefront of policy and action, many Europeans look west to America for leadership.
Of course, there is some truth in both points of view.
Last week, at the inaugural meeting of the GreenBiz Europe Executive Network, we saw both views in sharp relief. The intense conversation between a dozen and a half companies, meeting in a conference room in Paris, a stone’s throw from the Louvre Museum, revealed transatlantic reciprocity and interdependence.
The event – convened under the Chatham House rule, which means participants and their affiliations may not be named – brought together participants from Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland and the UK (plus myself and two colleagues others intermingled from the United States, GreenBiz Sustainability Deputy Prime Minister Dylan Siegler and co-founder Pete May; and Lori Gustavus, Paris-based GreenBiz Europe director). Like its nearly 15-year-old US-based counterpart, the member-led executive network promotes peer-to-peer learning among corporate sustainability leaders.
Our assumption that European firms would be reserved to ask questions and exchange solutions took about 30 minutes to disprove.
In Europe, we learned, such groups are relatively few. One possible explanation: it is assumed that companies are more reserved than in the US to share their lessons or ask each other for help. Domestically, where many corporate sustainability initiatives are considered pre-competitive, it has become common for companies to open up to peers, even competitors, to share what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and what they’re learning along the way. . In Europe, not so much.
But as we saw last week, there is a hunger for such engagement. Our initial assumption that the European business community would be more reluctant to embrace the opportunity to ask questions and share solutions took about 30 minutes of the first day to be disproved. Under Gustavus’ leadership, the conversation was interrupted.
Pragmatic and philosophical
The topics ranged widely, as they often do at these meetings. There were common issues we have long seen within American companies: employee education; customer engagement; the role of advisory boards; improving the skills of sustainability professionals and others.
And there were some topics that are less often discussed, some bordering on philosophy. Here are three (with thanks to Xana Maunze, our diligent note keeper):
- Solutions based on nature for sequestering and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions are increasingly common these days. But Europeans seemed to be asking deeper questions. Among them: Are companies ready to set science-based targets for nature? Should biodiversity be a business priority? How can companies align “nature positive” commitments with global goals? (Side note: We’ll be hosting a half-day Nature Forum as part of next month’s VERGE 22 conference and expo.)
- Policy commitment and sustainability should be better aligned. Businesses need to engage policy makers and not just associations to push for policy changes that will impact sustainability. For sustainability leaders, this means using one’s circle of influence within the country to generate change. The corporate secretary or the risk, communications, legal and other teams may be allies, depending on the organization.
- The clash between sustainability and economic growth. How can companies grow and still claim to be supporting nature? Where do growth and regeneration converge and conflict? How do we measure progress in regeneration, particularly at the firm level? There is a need for a playbook on how it can work.
On this last point, my friend, sustainable business pioneer (and former GreenBiz contributor) John Elkington, highly regarded on both sides of the pond, pointed out two sides of the “growth” conversation.
“Those who have grown up in the sustainability industry have grown up in a world where we are locked into a world of growth because we are going to 8 [billion]10 [billion], 14 billion people,” he said. “Now you’re seeing the consensus break down, whether it’s Japan or China, going from 1.4 billion people to 700 million by the end of the century. So the pig is coming.” The implications for companies in a variety of sectors could be profound, he noted.
As I said, from the pragmatic to the philosophical.
In the end, the question of which continent is further along in addressing sustainable business issues is largely moot. Europeans and Americans – as with many other social, cultural, economic and geopolitical issues – are on parallel journeys, facing strikingly similar battles and enjoying similar successes. And I generally move forward at a speed that simultaneously seems faster than some would expect, but much, much slower than what is actually needed.
In this regard, we are all family.
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