Why Europe is leading on climate-conscious business

Why Europe is leading on climate-conscious business

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In 2015, I moved to Europe to develop our international services at 3Degrees. Since then, I’ve had countless conversations across the continent, from conference hallways to coffee shops, about differences and similarities between Europe and the United States on topics of culture, business and how the two go together.

I’ve seen dozens of professional presentations, unwillingly consumed thousands of advertisements, and read online musings by amateurs and professionals alike. Through all this, I see one important, relevant pattern: the European normative culture not only accepts and believes in climate change, but it also internalizes individual business responsibility to address it. There is a moral imperative to act, and I see this underlying government policies, private sector strategies and individual behavior. There is a seemingly deep, present belief that we — the collective "we" — have an obligation to the whole. And the European business community is a leader in these conversations.

I was first able to articulate this pattern in June while at the Responsible Business Summit in London. Acknowledging the very name of the conference draws a biased group of attendees and speakers, it wasn’t just filled with corporate stump speeches publicizing their good works (although some of that existed, too). What surprised me was their specific positions and statements, and the very nature of how mainstream these were. One after another, speakers cited examples of how their organization believes looking up and down the value stream is not just good for business, it’s the right thing to do. Craig Kreeger of Virgin Atlantic (PDF), for example, explained sustainability isn’t about creating a competitive advantage. It’s about creating a better future.

A global call for change

I know the topics and content at European conferences are different from events in the states because I’ve attended equally self-selecting green business conferences across America, such as VERGE, Sustainable Brands and Sustainable Purchasing Summit. At these events, speakers tend to share practical, first-hand know-how, for instance, about how they engaged internal stakeholders on a specific renewable energy transaction or waste reduction initiative. The shining star of these events is often how much money can be saved or how these "green" investments can outperform others. I leave conferences not impressed by the corporate motivation, but instead impressed by other (very American) things, such as securing higher product margins, the innovation of solutions, the grit to ink a deal or the business savvy used in analysis of problems. But we just don’t see the shared sense of obligation.

At another event this summer, the Business & Climate Summit, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were a top focus, alongside COP21 and the inevitability of a price on carbon. Patrick Pouyanné, chairman of the board and CEO of Total SA, admitted he sees the world as "before and after" the Paris commitment. One after another, corporations advocated — publicly — for a price on carbon high enough to affect investment decisions.

They also called on the private sector to collectively advocate for immediate ratification of the Paris Agreement. Regulatory concerns are certainly an obvious driver. The unexpected additional driver is that the private sector viewed itself as playing an important role. More companies from across the globe such as Unilever, Nestle, Michelin, HSBC and Coca-Cola are publicly advocating for meaningful policies that enhance and create a strong framework for pricing carbon.

At 3Degrees, we’re guided by our belief that we have a moral obligation to act on climate change, today more than ever before. Not because the Paris Agreement entered into force (PDF) Nov. 4, and not only because there is business opportunity for both us and our clients. But because it is the right thing to do. Finding where the right thing to do intersects with business interests is the sweet spot we aim for.

There seems to be momentum in U.S. companies embedding "green" practices deeper into the business and further up the ladder into boardroom discussions. Especially today, as the private sector plays an increasingly important role given expected conditions with the newly elected president, these voluntary actions take on more importance. Ken Powell, CEO of General Mills, recently remarked at the BSR Conference in New York: "We want to win. But we also believe we can, and we should, be a force for good."

This kind of position coming from around the country, gives me hope that every day, across the globe, there are more organizations coming together in a united, urgent call to blaze a path for real progress on climate change.