Since the start of 2012, I’ve been to the US three times and it is interesting to reflect on what is going on in the world of sustainability. It is tempting to say “not much” and make this a very short blog, but that’s not the case.
I never imagined I would spend time in Texas working on sustainability with a company that exclusively supplies big oil with capital equipment, but I did. I never imagined I would end up helping the United Nations deliver the Rio +20 event in a more sustainable way, but I have. I did not predict spending time with the UK, US and Canadian institutions for civil engineering talking about more sustainable infrastructure development, but I have. And I expect to be back in the summer, working with at least two other global businesses. And yes, I offset my flights!
Does this signify a change of direction? And if so, why?
There are fundamental differences between the US and Europe and we are sometimes get fooled by the common language and underestimate these. The majority of Europeans intellectually accept the idea that climate change is happening and most accept that the problem and potential solution is related to increases in greenhouse gas emissions caused by the human race. Opinion differs about what we should do about it, but we have a collective guilt about it.
This is not the case in the US. Climate change denial is rife and supported by a number of leading politicians and business leaders.
On the subject of supplier diversity, having conversations in UK and Europe about how to encourage more under-represented groups is sometimes tricky. I was once challenged from the floor by a director of a construction company about it. He maintained that this was not an issue for the industry and that his company always select the best person for the job. I invited him to look around the room (which contained around 200 people) and pointed out the irony that the demographic in the room suggested that ‘the best person for the job’ was always a white, middle-aged man. They did not invite me back. In the US, there is legislation for the public sector and quotas to engage minority and women-owned businesses in the supply chain, and it’s a much bigger issue for US corporations too.
Environmental considerations are very different and driven by geography. In most southern and western states, there is very little public transport and people rely entirely on their cars. I heard loud complaints from the driver of a seven-seater Cadillac doing 12 miles per gallon that gasoline prices had risen to $3.50 and he was thinking about a smaller car, maybe a Range Rover. He nearly had a fit when I told him how much we pay for fuel in the UK. Air travel is the only way to cover the vast distances and homes and office space tend to be much larger and energy-hungry. According to the WWF, if the world lived like Western Europe we would need three planets of resources to sustain life on earth; if the world lived a North American lifestyle we would need six.
I have been surprised at the high levels of loyalty in many US companies and the pride people take in the values of the companies they work for. Some businesses are catching on to sustainability because it chimes with their tradition and values. Many I spoke to have an ageing and long-serving workforce, particularly among managers. Their inevitable retirement means that a younger generation of managers need to be attracted and retained. The ‘dash for talent’ means that sustainability needs to be addressed because younger people are more inclined to expect this.
The third factor is profit. Despite being divided in their opinions about climate change, US businesses tend to be more in agreement about how to make a few dollars. If the world wants solutions to a problem they believe exists, US businesses can provide them. The mighty GE is pouring over a billion dollars into its ‘ecomagination’ programme to deliver lower carbon solutions through their hundreds of businesses. They are not doing this because they feel guilty, they are doing it because they see it as a sound investment.
Be warned, the Americans are coming and they are going to kick your ass.
☛ Shaun McCarthy is the director of Action Sustainability, a not for profit social enterprise set up to lead and inspire sustainable procurement.