Since moving to the United States from France last year, I have been anxious to understand how American corporations are thinking about sustainability. From an external political perspective, we have witnessed the United States withdraw from the Paris Agreement and the changes with EPA leadership to name a few signals of uncertainty, and it’s been unclear what direction the country was taking.
At the same time, we’ve seen the increased resolve of mayors, governors and business leaders to pledge to reduce emissions and stem the causes of climate change. I knew I had to take the road to see for myself firsthand what is actually happening with U.S. businesses and their sustainability efforts.
So, I set off in an electric vehicle (and other modes of transport) with my ENGIE Insight colleagues on a grassroots coast to coast sustainability tour to canvass the US, stopping to visit ten cities in ten days. Along the way, we met with U.S. business leaders, innovators and influencers to gain insight into the strategies, successes, and underpinning innovations as well learn the specific challenges that organizations are facing. We designed the tour to get an accurate sense of what’s really going on and to spark conversations on what we learned on a spectrum of sustainability topics like renewable energy, blockchain, energy efficiency, water conservation and waste reduction projects and more. From there, we also wanted to gather all the intelligence we could and use it to help inform the work we do at ENGIE Insight to support clients in their commitment to sustainability.
Over the course of two weeks we met with more than 130 companies and organizations across industries. It quickly became clear there is a convergence of trends influencing the state of sustainability in the U.S. and they are consistent across industries and regions regardless of whether we’re talking about a retail company with locations across the country to a restaurant whose primary presence is in the Northeast. Here are the top three trends I saw consistently throughout my sustainability tour experience.
Sustainability Investment, Now
We’ve seen more and more companies continuing to invest now in energy and sustainability solutions that benefit business, consumers and our environment. Solar power, for example, is in a constant state of innovation. During the tour, I had the opportunity to visit the largest rooftop solar array at an IKEA distribution center outside of Chicago, this solar system alone produces enough energy to power over 271 homes. Businesses continue to be financially attracted to go solar as costs come down. Companies like IKEA are investing in these systems not only because it’s cost effective but because it’s an ingrained part of their company operational plan as they scope new buildings.
Beyond renewables, we’re experiencing a big wave of sustainability innovation that carries with it impressive breakthroughs. Take Lutron Electronics, a company specializing in cutting-edge energy-saving lighting and shade control. We met with Lutron on the Washington D.C. tour stop and they spoke with us about how their customers are using smart lighting control systems and concepts like daylight harvesting to save energy and create the optimal working environment for people. They even proved to us that dimming lights by 20% can be naked to the human eye! More and more choices will come with all of this innovation and will open even more opportunities for businesses to continue to invest in sustainability.
Data and Insights
Across the board companies shared how they needed more data to justify the business case for holistic sustainability initiatives. They are not just thinking of energy only, or waste only or water only, they are looking at the nexus of these resource areas together to find opportunities on how to save. Arby’s has identified over $39 million dollars of energy and water savings by monitoring their equipment individually, using the related data and applying analysis to help predict equipment performance, temperature tracking, cooking platforms, reduce overall consumption and better predicting budget forecasting. It helps make all the other sustainability work they’ve done that much smarter. Overall, this holistic approach based on data and the notion of how to scale was in virtually every conversation we had. Companies know it makes financial sense to invest in sustainability projects. The data provides the foundation to pilot projects and understand where the greatest impact will come.
Stakeholder Excitement and Pressure
Fifty years ago the U.S. government set the environmental standard, through regulations and legislation like the Clean Air Act or Endangered Species Act. We learned from environmental legislation pioneer and founder of Earth Day, Denis Hayes, that a massive amount of work was done to get the country to a steady state during this time. Now, this effort has pivoted to being led by businesses and they’re ambitious about setting emission reduction goals complete with carbon reporting. Today, sustainability strategy goes hand in hand with business success. The investor community sees huge potential in financing climate action. Not to mention, consumers are demanding it and making these demands known through brand loyalty and spending decisions. It was inspiring to hear about the work our customers have done to formalize their commitments to environmental sustainability and turn them into real action both to gain consumer loyalty, but also as a mechanism to drive employee retention.
Case in point: GameStop pushed sustainability missions through their corporate office by talking about how to engage employees in a different way. Chick-Fil-A hosts bee hives at their corporate headquarters to help give their teams a unique, local experience while also serving the environment. Companies like Haverty’s are thinking about how to deliver to their customers a better overall shopping experience which includes optimized lighting, a beautiful store environment along with a lighter footprint while ingraining sustainability as a key pillar to the company mission.
It was an amazing experience to take a classic American coast to coast road trip this summer and meet with companies all across the country who are leading the sustainability charge. I learned that we are at the next level of a sustainability revolution and businesses are at the forefront of driving real environmental change. Sustainability is evolving to an operational imperative for businesses ingrained within the company mission– not merely something that’s a ‘nice thing to do.’ I saw evidence of this again and again over the course of the trip, and my team and I will continue to apply these insights to our work helping businesses solve their critical energy and sustainability problems and build achievable sustainability roadmaps to support their business success for the future.
Image credit: ENGIE Insight