The United States Is At Risk of Marginalizing Itself on Sustainability: What Business Can Do

Photo by william87 on iStock

May 8, 2024
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

This is the second of a two-part series on how developments in the United States are marginalizing its global leadership role, and creating unnecessary barriers to the achievement of a more just and sustainable global economy. 

The lack of consistent American engagement and leadership on just and sustainable business is having far-reaching consequences. The picture we painted in the first installment of this two-part series includes inconsistent and changing regulations, opposing approaches in different US states, a decline in global cooperation, and increased geopolitical conflict that interferes with global trade. These developments are bad not only for sustainable business, but also bad for business in general. 

With this in mind, what can business do? While many companies have gone quiet in the face of backlash and skepticism—mostly while maintaining commitments—that may not be the right influence strategy at a time when many forces are pulling the United States away from a more consistent and ambitious approach.  American poet Robert Frost famously wrote that when facing a problem, “the best way out is always through,” and that applies here.  To avoid further slippage of American leadership, it’s essential that companies go directly to one of the main sources of this erosion of ambition: the unfounded backlash against addressing important issues like climate action and the need for greater equity.     

While many business leaders would prefer to avoid the political risk they see in calling for more decisive direction from the US, standing aside is riskier than engaging. A failure of American leadership and constancy will only magnify and deepen the many uncertainties facing companies due to multiple disruptions.

Put more positively, companies benefit from sustained American engagement in many ways: consistent and predictable rules to enable more stable planning; global cooperation to address shared challenges; ideally, respect for rule of law; support for financial support for the energy transition, and policies that promote the innovations and investments needed to shift the economy to a fairer and more sustainable pathway.

There is a strong business case for companies to call for American engagement in support of a more sustainable world. To be credible messengers, business also needs to look in the mirror: one of the reasons that support for sustainability in the US is waning is the fact that the public has lost faith in the global economy as a driver of shared prosperity. For the private sector to exert influence in a way society embraces, it has to go further in terms of action, credible communication, and willingness to engage in advocacy.

Action: One of the reasons why much of the general public, and many policymakers, are wary of the sustainable business agenda is the insufficient evidence of progress. It is high time to close the gap between commitment and delivery. Whether on Scope 3 climate goals, diversity objectives, labor conditions in global supply chains, or designing technologies with society’s best interests in mind, there are legitimate reasons why “ESG” has become a juicy target for political opponents. What’s more, there has been little effort to make economic equity and opportunity a strong enough part of the sustainability agenda. Closing the delivery gap is easier said than done, and is a prize in itself. Doing so is a predicate for the private sector to use its voice credibly and effectively. 

Communication: Public officials’ commitment to sustainability is driven in part by tepid public support. And weak public support is due in large part to the disconnect between what sustainability advocates say and what the general public understands and feels to be true. We all know that business has not communicated effectively on sustainability, in some cases conveying grand messages on “corporate purpose” which are not sufficiently matched by actions at best, or which were never “real” to begin with at worst. Objectives also are often disconnected from the reality of peoples’ lives. The exciting innovation stories behind many sustainability initiatives is something that is either underplayed, or may not resonate with the average person. As a result, sustainability seems to be suffering from its own “vibecession,” with the progress taking place lost on people who feel vulnerable economically and nervous about the overall pace of change they are experiencing. Blaming the audience never works, however, so it is essential to make sustainability more real, and more compelling. This will have the echo effect of strengthening political support and pushing back on the backlash. 

Advocacy: Business’ influence as an advocate for supportive public policy has been stilled over the past two years, as companies have faced blowback from some elected officials, and skepticism from the media, stakeholders, and even employees. While it may be true that new commitments were trumpeted too loudly in 2020-21, it also seems true that greenhushing has gone too far now. The business voice needs to be heard. What’s more the voice that needs to be heard is in sync with business interests as well as sustainability objectives. Companies have an interest in the rules-based global trade system, consistent regulatory frameworks, and a commitment to global cooperation to address shared global challenges. Business—if it shores up its credibility based on delivering against goals—can be a powerful voice that helps to ensure that the US remains committed to these objectives and actions. Without this, the private sector could see further slippage into a combative and volatile environment that furthers neither economic vitality nor sustainability progress. 

Building an economy that works for all people is, by definition, a matter of universal concern. And while “Sustainability Americana” is not fit for purpose in today’s world, a coherent global approach to sustainability requires that America stay in the game. American leadership matters—and it won’t happen without businesses calling for ambition, cooperation, and engagement.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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