The sustainability movement: five trends on this side of the Atlantic

At a recent conference in Los Angeles, Peter Madden chose five themes to contrast European and US experience

Occupy London outside St Paul's

Occupy London outside St Paul’s. Peter Maddern says there is now a questioning of capitalism that worries businesspeople. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

Sustainability professionals in the US like to keep an eye on what’s happening in Europe. The cutting-edge work by some of our companies – such as M&S and Unilever – defines corporate leadership on sustainability. The EU is still the global market maker in environmental standards and regulation. And, despite its current woes, Europe is still the biggest economic bloc in the world.

I was asked to give a brief presentation in San Francisco on the latest trends for business sustainability in Europe. I picked five themes.

The first is a root and branch questioning of capitalism. I’m not just talking about the tents of the Occupy/Indignados movement here, but also deep concerns amongst mainstream businesspeople. When the credit crunch hit first time round, there was a rush to get back to business as usual and a remarkable lack of questioning of the economic basics. As we slip back into recession, with the spectre of a Euro-meltdown, lots of senior business people I’m talking to have fundamental worries about the future of the economic system. It will be interesting to see if these privately expressed misgivings come out into the open.

Second, there is lots of focus at the moment on changing consumers through brands. Pioneering companies such as Unilever are realising that they have to change behaviour if they want to reduce their overall footprint. And, after all the attention on supply chain in the last couple of years, there is a new willingness from the big brands to get proactive with customers. Lots of this is still at the discussion stage, but we’ll definitely see more initiatives like B&Q’s One Planet Living and Sainsbury’s Love Your Leftovers.

The third theme is that ecosystems are the new climate change. As the population grows and the science gets scarier, there is increasing attention on the basic services the planet provides to us, from clean water to raw materials in the supply chain. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity work to put a value on these natural services, has been led by Europe. And lots more companies are now asking Forum for the Future how to integrate thinking on biodiversity into their sustainability strategies.

Fourth, we see a trend of smart everything: from intelligent building and smart cities to smart grids, even a smarter planet. With money short, especially in the public sector, people are focusing on invest-to-save, efficient management, and making more out of what we’ve got. And given that we have already built most of what we are going to build in Europe, the emphasis is on retrofit, overlaying digital intelligence on existing infrastructure. Smart cities, in particular, seem to be having their moment, with new funding streams from the European Commission, companies such as Siemens and Phillips investing heavily, and a host of smart cities conferences taking place this autumn.

Finally, we may be facing a two-speed Europe. Such a restructuring would bring a much sharper recession, which would certainly be bad for sustainability. It would undermine Europe’s global leadership in environmental negotiations.

However, for environmental standards and spending, I suspect that things might balance out overall in a two-speed Europe. Yes, there will be laggards. But we would also expect to see a small number of countries pushing further and faster on integration and joint action. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, will be at the heart of this group. And given its recent decision to phase out nuclear power, it should become a more vocal proponent of low carbon energy.

So, these were the five trends I picked, based on my recent interactions and Forum for the Future’s work. Some are emergent, others are clearer. What did I miss?

Source / Fuente:

Author / Autor: Peter Madden

Date / Fecha: 09/11/11

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