Having spent the past four years in the UK, I eagerly embraced my recent return to the US, but of course it was not without its challenges. As a sustainability professional moving from the European to the US market, you can’t help but notice how wide the spectrum of corporate sustainability activity is in this country.
Most professionals in the field will unanimously agree that Europe is further ahead on the sustainability agenda and a recent disappointing Gallup report showed that climate change as an issue of concern for the American people has declined significantly.
Yet some of the most respected companies leading the charge on sustainability are American businesses – Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Wyndham Worldwide – and several of the industry’s most advanced and disruptive initiatives (Starbucks’ commitment to higher education; B Corp) are being developed stateside. So what gives?
State of play
This scenario is all too common in this country. In Europe, many governments are driving increased regulation with companies responding accordingly and often pushing the boundaries further. In the US, we see more of companies rallying together to influence systemic change and consumers driving corporate change. Combined, this creates a very different dynamic to our friends across the pond. As a result, the US has some excellent examples of sustainability initiatives (for those who have seen the opportunity) for individual companies, whereas Europe has more examples of systemic change across industries and markets. Global businesses in particular are feeling this effect with regional offices sometimes driving activity ahead of HQs (and vice versa), depending on local market expectations and the ambition of executive leadership.
The interpretations of ‘sustainability’ and ‘corporate responsibility’ are also very different in the US and European markets. Europe has adopted a more connected approach to the issues and looks at sustainability in a more holistic way, which is often considered more advanced. Alternatively, the US sees sustainability as an environmental term and CSR is the evolution of America’s deep philanthropic roots. Neither is right or wrong so long as a company is looking across its entire value chain, but it does create a headache on the communications level.
For those of us working in sustainability, change can feel painstakingly slow. Yet, I have noticed a significant difference in the US since I was here last; people and companies are undoubtedly more aware of the issues; in fact many brands are noticeably responding through the packaging, marketing tactics and even policy advocacy. This is particularly evident in the food sector.
So change is happening, perhaps not as systemic as it needs to, but we are making progress and I believe the US is poised for a seismic shift in the next few years.
There are two factors embedded in the American culture that make us not only unique, but well positioned to accelerate the sustainability agenda. First, as many Americans can testify, foreigners love to talk to us about our country and while not always positive, one thing that is often mentioned is admiration of our spirit. Americans are nationalistic in a way very few countries are and we really believe in our abilities as individuals. An extension of the American Dream? Perhaps. But the American culture truly fosters the empowerment of an individual and our willingness to get behind an inspirational leader, and you can see this in our grassroots approach to sustainable change.
Second is our drive for innovation. Americans love big, bold new ideas that keep them ahead of the game and leading the way, particularly in business. Companies that have recognized sustainability as an opportunity for innovation are starting to see it as a point of differentiation with competitors and some are even seeing the first signs of financial returns. As consumers start using more of their purchasing power to incite the change they want to see in business, companies failing to innovate will suffer.
When, not if
For a while, I think the world wondered if America would ever get on board with the realities of climate change, but I think it is safe to say that change is finally upon us. Skeptics (who are eagerly sensationalized by the media) will try to convince you otherwise, but the movement is underway and younger generations are the ones at the helm. Even the American government is making progress. It is no longer a question of if, but when.
This presents a tremendous opportunity for businesses that can see far enough into the future to understand the benefits of their efforts now. Not everyone will be on board and the outcomes of those decisions will be all the more obvious in a few years time, but smart, agile companies that embed sustainability into the business will undoubtedly be the most successful in the future.
As for the rest of us? Americans need to recognize and utilize their power to incite more change through the everyday decisions we make and the brands we choose to support. Our collective power is our biggest asset and we need to exercise our right to shape this ‘new world’.