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Who’s leading on sustainability — European or U.S. companies?

It’s an open question, and the answer depends largely on who you ask. While American observers generally credit the Europeans with being at the forefront of policies and action, many Europeans look west to America for leadership.

Of course, there’s some truth to both perspectives.

Last week, at the inaugural meeting of the GreenBiz Executive Network Europe, we saw both views in sharp relief. The robust conversation among the dozen and a half companies, meeting in a Paris conference room a stone’s throw from the Louvre Museum, revealed the transatlantic mutuality and interdependence.

The event — convened under the Chatham House rule, meaning that participants and their affiliations may not be named — brought together participants from Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland and the U.K. (plus myself and two other interloping colleagues from the United States, GreenBiz VP Sustainability Dylan Siegler and co-founder Pete May; and Lori Gustavus, GreenBiz’s Paris-based Europe director). Much like its nearly 15-year-old U.S.-based counterpart, the member-led executive network promotes peer-to-peer learning among corporate sustainability leaders.

Our assumption that European firms would be reticent to ask questions and share solutions took about 30 minutes to disprove.

In Europe, we learned, groups such as this are relatively scarce. One possible explanation: Companies are assumed to be more reticent than in the U.S. to share their learnings or to ask one another for help. Stateside, where many corporate sustainability initiatives are considered precompetitive, it’s become commonplace for companies to open themselves up to peer companies, 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’s 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 disprove. Under the leadership of Gustavus, the conversation was off and running.

Pragmatic and philosophical

The topics ran the gamut, as they often do at these meetings. There were the mundane issues we’ve long seen inside U.S. companies: educating employees; engaging consumers; the role of advisory boards; upskilling sustainability professionals and others.

And there were some topics that are less-frequently discussed, some bordering on the philosophical. Here are three (with thanks to Xana Maunze, our diligent note-taker):

  • Nature-based solutions 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 engagement and sustainability need to better align. Businesses need to engage policymakers and not just associations to push for changes in policy that will affect sustainability. For sustainability executives, that means using one’s circle of influence internally to generate change. The corporate secretary or the risk, communications, legal and other teams can be allies, depending on the organization.
  • The clash between sustainability and economic growth. How can companies grow and still claim they are supporting nature? Where do growth and regeneration align and conflict? How do we even measure progress in regeneration, particularly at the firm level? There is a need for a playbook on how that can work.

On that last item, my friend, sustainable business pioneer (and erstwhile GreenBiz contributor) John Elkington, highly regarded on both sides of the pond, pointed out two sides of the “growth” conversation.

“Those who’ve grown up in the sustainability industry have grown up in a world where we’re locked into a world of growth because we’re going to 8 [billion], 10 [billion], 14 billion people,” he said. “Now you’re seeing that consensus breaking down, whether it’s Japan, or whether it’s China, going from 1.4 billion people down to 700 million by the end of the century. So, degrowth is coming.” The implications for companies across 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. The Europeans and the Americans — as with so many other social, cultural, economic and geopolitical issues — are on parallel journeys, facing strikingly similar struggles and enjoying similar successes. And generally moving forward at a speed that simultaneously seems faster than some would expect but far, far slower than what’s actually needed.

In that regard, we’re all family.

Thanks for reading. You can find my past articles here. Also, I invite you to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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