Common destiny, uncommon urgency

May 18, 2009

George Bernard Shaw famously quipped that England and America are two countries divided by a common language. Today sustainability should be uniting Europe and America in common endeavour, but is it really?

Some Europeans pride themselves on having a kinder, gentler society than red-toothed American capitalism, with a safety net of socialised medicine and social security benefit. And it’s true that when unemployment strikes, having no healthcare and little money for food hits an American faster and harder than is the norm in Europe.

This picture of a gung-ho, free market society has coloured perceptions of American business, that US firms don’t take seriously concerns about environmental sustainability or wider responsibilities beyond traditional corporate philanthropy. The Regan/Bush (father and son) years have taken their toll on perceptions, and the Obama presidency is very much in its infancy. However, reading this edition of Briefing should give the lie to that perception. A roll-call of big name US corporations are taking action – McDonald’s, Nike, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola et al – on a plethora of activities which should put any smug European companies to shame.

Consumer attitudes are remarkably similar on both continents. We report here a new survey showing three quarters of American consumers believe their purchasing choices make a difference and approaching a third look to third party certification to substantiate claims made.
Meanwhile, a survey published by AccountAbility in the UK found 36% looking for third party logos. The same survey found a massive ‘accountability gap’ between expectations consumers place on companies and trust that they will deliver.

However one area of notable difference is the extent to which US corporations are internationally focused. In this edition we also report on the annual review of the United Nations Global Compact. One telling statistic is the number of companies who adhere to its principles and provide an annual ‘communication’ – just 35 American firms did so last year, compared to 640 from Europe.

That focus on the domestic front is one reason why President Obama will have so much difficulty getting his ‘clean energy’ (aka climate change/global warming) programme through Congress. European and American companies may appear to be taking similar actions, but too few share a common world view. And that must be a real concern, given the urgency of getting agreement at Copenhagen later this year.