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How the Definition of Sustainability Changes Around the World

Trista Bridges, founder of Read the Air & co-author of Leading Sustainably is lived in France for several years before moving to Japan. Trista found a stark difference between France and Japan: how often the topic of sustainability came up. She was fascinated by how different cultures approach this topic, which led her to interview companies around the globe for her book.

Written by
Trista Bridges

Having been raised in the US, worked most of my adult life in Europe, and now living and working in Japan, I am keenly interested in how sustainability is evolving around the world. The good news is that it’s increasingly being embraced in most countries and regions. But how do their sustainability journeys differ? What progress has been made and where is there more work to do? 

I’ve seen in my work and research that while sustainability is an increasing priority in all regions, there are big divergences in both the speed of progress and types of actions around the globe. In this article, I’ll delve into both the encouraging developments underway and the challenges different regions are grappling with. The world is obviously a big place, so we’ll focus on four vast and highly diverse regions - Europe (including the UK), Asia, Africa, and South and Latin America.

Europe (including the UK) Leads the Way

If the world had a “sustainability epicenter”, Europe would be it. Spurred by citizens who widely believe that the capitalism in its current form is a dead-end, governments that increasingly see a sustainable path as the route to prosperity, and civil society who are crying out for change through new movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for the Future, European businesses are accelerating the integration of sustainability into what they do. In one prominent example, 6 of the top 10 companies in Corporate Knights’ well regarded annual survey of the world’s most sustainable companies are European. Europe is also the home to the world’s largest B Corp, Danone, and perhaps soon then next largest one too, Givaudan. In addition, it also leads on sustainability standard-setting, as home to key ratings and certifications groups Sustainalytics, RobecoSAM, and Ecovadis. Europe’s start-up boom of the last decade has also been a big catalyst for sustainable innovation across the continent. Impact investment funds have sprung up and innovators like insect-based animal feed startup Ynsect, sustainable fashion brands like Sézane, and next-gen green battery maker Northvolt, are shaking up their respective sectors. 

Politically, Europe’s embrace of a green future is also accelerating. Green party candidates have shown remarkable strength across the continent in recent elections, including in my adopted country France where they picked up mayorships in cities like Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Bordeaux, and Strasbourg. As the EU aims to build its post-COVID-19 future, its leaders moved to embed green initiatives in its recently agreed €550 billion recovery package. Although many believe this sum falls short, when taken in combination with Europe’s bold planned carbon charge for “dirty imports”, the “old continent” is undoubtedly off to a solid start. And not to be outdone by its peers in the wake of Brexit and the pandemic, the UK has set a target to hit zero emissions by 2050 and earmarked £350 million to spur the decarbonization of their transport, space, heavy industry and construction sectors.

Although they’ve clearly made substantial progress in recent years, Europe (incl the UK) still has a monumental task ahead of it to realize its aspirations for a green, more just future. 

There is No Sustainable Future Without Asia On-Board

Asia has been slower to embrace sustainability. Nevertheless, I’ve seen a big uptick in awareness and momentum around sustainability as of late. Japan, where I’m based, the SDGs are everywhere, with even many “salarymen” and “salarywomen” sporting their SDG pins. These days, you would be hard pressed to find an annual report of a large Japanese company without mention of the SDGs. Actions are still too far and few between, but companies like Sekisui House (home construction), Ricoh (office equipment), Kao Corporation (cosmetics), and Sony (electronics) are making strides. And, the conscious consumer mindset is increasingly taking hold in Japan, as consumers here are quickly coming around to how plastics overuse (a particularly pertinent problem here), climate change, and gender inequality are risks to the long-term well-being and viability of Japanese society and the planet. Most here don’t think their government nor their business community are doing enough and, interestingly, believe that customers should discourage Japanese and foreign businesses against investing in projects that could have a negative impact on climate

Japan is certainly not alone. As global corporations begin to shift more of their production to South and/or Southeast Asia and China continues to expand its actions on the environment (which will likely accelerate post-COVID-19), sustainability has popped up on the agenda of many companies in the region. Many of these local companies are feeling the pressure to respond to the sustainable supply chain push coming from their clients -- global multinationals such as Apple, H&M, LVMH, and the like. Governments across the region are more actively embracing policies to shape a more sustainable future for their nations, looking at actions around areas like palm oil, science-based targets, sustainable farming, and circularity. However, the region still struggles in many areas, particularly in addressing its ballooning plastic waste problem, which will only exacerbate as Asia goes on to claim 50% of the world’s consumption by 2030. As the production and, shortly, the consumption hub of the world, a sustainable Asia isn’t an option, but rather a must. 

On the Front Lines of Sustainability, Africa has the Opportunity to Pave a Better Development Path 

While the many developed countries such as the US struggle with climate denialism, Africa, impressively, appears to have the lowest level of climate change skepticism with an impressive

77% of Africans believing it’s caused by human activity. As they are often disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis, this should hardly be a surprise. The SDGs have particular resonance on the continent as the 17 goals generally align with the priorities of many African nations. In addition, Africa’s vibrant, fast-growing youth population is not only interested in their countries’ economic development, but also has a clear desire to forge a path where sustainability isn’t sacrificed for growing wealth. Startups, many of whom are purpose-led, will play a big role in guiding Africa towards a more sustainability-centered growth path. Fintech and microfinance startup Branch International, who are backed by heavyweight VCs like Andreessen-Horowitz and others to the tune $170m, are one such impressive example.

Of course, Africa is an extremely diverse place economically, culturally and structurally. Its countries are not in lockstep on many issues, including sustainability. However, there are clear signs of progress. South Africa, for example, has embraced and recently rolled-out a carbon tax, making it one of 40 nations worldwide to do so.  Rwanda, as another example, are widely seen as a sustainability leader, having laid out several years ago their Vision 2020 plan which mandated such actions as the banning of non-degradable plastic bags (way back in 2008!), the adoption of agroforestry and reforestation practices across the country, and the normalization of gender equality; now fully 61% of their political representatives are female.  

International companies operating in Africa also see the opportunity to test and expand innovative sustainable solutions on the continent. One example of this in action is from Diageo who have invested approximately $200m in renewable energy resources to limit carbon and water use across its breweries in Uganda and Kenya.  Civil society is also an immensely important actor in compelling companies to action, driving initiatives in areas like ethical cocoa production in Ghana and the Ivory Coast and deforestation and climate effects in Kenya’s tea sector.  

It’s clear that Africa has made big strides. However, it remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to dramatically slow economic growth across the continent, will undo the substantial efforts of recent years. 

In South and Latin America, the Fight to Protect Not Just the Region’s But the World’s Biodiversity Continues

A global tracking survey by Nielsen-Corporate Board found a high desire amongst consumers for companies to implement programs that improve the environment. Interestingly, South America claims 7 of the top 11 countries with the highest scores in the survey. The political unrest (now in several countries across the continent), as well as the open backtracking on environmental commitments in countries like Brazil, have led to an apparent disconnect between the actions of some South American governments on topics like climate and the aspirations of its citizens.  Nevertheless, there are countries in the region that have emerged as champions for sustainability. Costa Rica, often heralded as a world sustainability leader, and Chile are two important examples. Costa Rica is particularly impressive, maintaining its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2021, protecting 30% of its territory as natural land, and sourcing 93% of its energy from renewables. It is simply known as the mecca of sustainable tourism. Chile, meanwhile, are viewed as a leader in solar and wind energy and have clear commitments in place around the SDGs and Paris accords.

While not as visible as other regions, business activity in the area of sustainability has had a positive impact on the region. Civil society-private enterprise partnerships are one core method for driving change in the region. Claiming two of the five top coffee producers, Brazil and Colombia, one could argue that the Fairtrade movement wouldn’t have been as successful as it was had it not been for the transformational work done in these markets. The Rainforest Alliance has also been stepping up their company certifications across the region in recent years, with the Amazon basin a particular geography of focus. And South and Latin America also have their sustainable business pioneers; the most notable being Natura & Co, a revolutionary in the cosmetics category and the first accredited, publicly listed B Corp. 

With up to a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity, almost half of its tropical forests, and a third of its fresh water resources, South America’s sustainability success are also the entire planet’s.