Mainstreaming Sustainability: Dream or Reality?

By Xènia Greenhalgh

Consistent themes running throughout the European Business Summit 2018 of digitalisation, artificial intelligence, Sustainable Development Goals and the circular economy, all culminated in a roundtable on the second day of the event – “Mainstreaming sustainability in the public and private sector: What role for innovation?” This question is perhaps the most important in a series necessary for building an environmentally responsible world, and it was enlightening to witness its exploration by an international and multidisciplinary panel of experts.

It is evident in the Juncker Plan, the EU Plastics Strategy, and other recent shifts in public policy that governments on national and supranational scales are taking seriously their role in mainstreaming sustainability. However, what has traditionally been more difficult is incentivising this paradigm shift in private actors. Despite Richard White, VP Procurement & Sustainability Europe for the world’s largest brewer – AB InBev, having expressed heart-warming idealism about prioritising change for his children, and the company’s steadfast belief in “the right thing to do,” corporate incentive is found at the bottom of a balance sheet – profit.

This pragmatism has seen inspirational innovation in AB InBev’s operations and wider supply chain – “seed to sip.” Not only have they begun to do away with a linear value chain, commercialising new products produced from waste in the beer brewing process, but also set targets and expectations for their suppliers according to a set of ambitious sustainability goals for 2025. White insisted, “If a supplier doesn’t have the same ambition as us for sustainability, we will take our business elsewhere.”

White also emphasised the importance of Public-Private Partnerships – especially with regards to investments into innovation, and technological development, which he calls key factors for mainstreaming sustainability. Innovations have the potential to make circular business models more efficient with resources and create opportunities for new products, and are therefore essential for mainstreaming sustainability.

Simona Bonafé, Member of the European Parliament and architect of its circular economy transition, also emphasised efficient resource use, stating that sustainable industrial policy is, “Important for the environment, but also for the competitiveness.” Private actors have a more significant role than funding research into innovative solutions, as governments and policy makers are responsible for fostering sustainable business environments by regulating practices, setting targets and preventative measures, providing a forward-looking legal framework that is clear for investors, and ultimately driving change. Even so, Signe Ratso, Deputy Director General of RTD Research at the European Commission, warned, “Regulation should promote innovation, rather than curbing it,” as she alluded to an example of prescribing technologies, and limiting waste production which otherwise could be used to create new products to be incorporated into an innovative circular business model.

This statement applies not only to the description of this brand of policies’ role, but more widely the role of innovation in mainstreaming sustainability in private and public spheres. In the diverse ecosystem of actors, innovation’s definition needs to be broadened past technologies, and include that of governance, markets, and more. Nevertheless, critical technologies like IoT and Big Data will be fundamental for sustainable transitions, and their development is the responsibility of every level of society. “Businesses do not exist in a vacuum,” as said by Céline Charveriat, the executive director of the Institute for Environmental Policy, and collaboration between NGOs, governments, and companies alike will be essential. Moreover, as Ms Charveriat accurately described, “consumption, again, does not fall from the sky,” and in order for bottom-up behavioural change, as in the example of Tobacco, “unbiased, quality information” must be made available to the consumer about sustainability.

Ultimately, private and public actors are equally responsible and instrumental in driving the rate and direction of sustainable change in Europe. Innovation in markets, governance, and technologies will be essential to incentivise investment into the transition, and regulators at national and European levels will be responsible for shaping the environment to foster it. The panel made an inspiring and convincingly multifaceted case for mainstreaming sustainability as a paradigm. However, greater practical change is what will pull Europe out of the rabbit hole and into a sustainable future.

Xenia is passionated and dedicated student in international relations and she hopes to, one day, enter a political career in multilateral institutions for the pursuit of international peace and prosperity. This trajectory is largely inspired by her colorful background as a South African with Zimbabwean and Spanish parents. 

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