For seven years, Peter Knight wrote a Letter from America column for Ethical Corporation. Here he reflects on a country that got lost along the ESG way, but is regaining ground
Saving the world one sugar-free doughnut at a time. Or was it one recycled plant-based Coke bottle? Or a recycled wet wipe?
It was 2007 and I was a Brit starting a sustainability consultancy in New York City. This was the land of free enterprise where personal responsibility eclipsed that of the state. Hence the motto repeated endlessly by campaign groups and the media about the power of personal consumer choice and how we could save the world one shopping decision at a time.
Any mention of the role of policy and government-devised frameworks was met with rolling eyes and looks of pity. I quickly discovered that I had entered a fascinating society whose cultural contradictions matched its vastness and dramatic diversity. And despite the success of Silicon Valley, it was a nation caught in a techno time warp. Mobile phones provided a service far worse than those in the developing world. Broadband was terrifyingly expensive and horribly slow. The banking system ignored chip and pin, and paper cheques (checks) were the dominant method of business payment.
Mentioning some of this to the then editor brought a request to contribute a regular Letter from America, providing a sideways look at the then dominant world power. And so began seven years of reporting on the frustrations and excitements of advising on sustainability in the country that had started the modern environmental movement (thank you Rachel Carson), passed pioneering laws (e.g. 1970 Clean Air Act), but had got terribly lost along the way.
I was stunned to learn that a perfectly acceptable form of coal mining in the Appalachians was simply to flatten the mountain
At the heart of the problem lay a fast-crumbling infrastructure that stymied efforts to create an efficient, fair and sustainable economy. This could be remedied by Biden’s $1tn infrastructure bill which intends to address the sad fact that nothing much had been done since the Hoover dam was built during the Depression. Bridges were (and are) falling apart, often with deathly consequences. Roads were in disrepair, the rail network a joke, and the telecommunications system that was the envy of the world in the 1970s had not advanced much since the breakup of the AT&T monopoly that decade.
One column focused on the problems facing municipalities in the north-west who were finding it difficult to mend water pipes made of wood. Wood? Surely that had to be fake news. But no, the pipes – made by binding planks together with wire and tar, much like a barrel – had worked well for over a century. But all the skilled wooden pipe fixers had long died out and municipalities were in a pickle: losing vast amounts of precious water through leaks, and too poor to modernise.
This was the time of Obama (remember hope?) and when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was at peak power. Despite its influence, environmental contradictions were everywhere, like mountaintop removal mining. I was stunned to learn that a perfectly acceptable form of coal mining in the Appalachians was simply to flatten the mountain and dump the spoil in the valley, blocking the river flow. And then there were the frequent fracking pollution incidents when dodgy retainer dams burst, spewing toxic mess downstream.
The cavalier companies responsible wrote off the relatively small environmental fines to operational expenses, which was not the case for an intrepid 21-year-old hiker in Oregon. He relieved himself while walking around a reservoir. Given that urine is 99% water, he did not think it mattered very much. But he was unlucky to have been caught on camera. The dam was drained and he was fined for polluting municipal drinking water.
I quickly learned that justice in America was reserved for those who could afford to hire clever lawyers. And, as this was long before the Black Lives Matter movement, concepts such as environmental justice were very much a minority interest and generally dismissed as lefty nonsense.
So much in the U.S. depended on the size of your bank account. But, and here’s another contradiction, wealth often brought worldliness, which influenced the understanding of sustainability. Multinationals and well-travelled Americans were at the same level of understanding as their European counterparts. But many big corporations – massive compared with those in Europe – thrived entirely on a domestic market and had not begun to grasp the macro trends that would eventually lead to the rise of ESG.
There was the pacemaker manufacturer who was puzzled by why anyone would be concerned about the data it collected from, literally, the beating hearts of those who used its devices
Fortunately, there were enough companies who got it (as many more do today) and we built a business that took me to all parts of an extraordinary country, meeting the most wonderful people, being exposed to experiences that broadened my mind while providing plenty of crazy material for my Letters from America.
There was, for example, the outraged community in Kentucky bourbon country who were angry about black mould that grew on their walls and ruined their garden furniture. This came from what I learned was the “angels’ share”: alcohol escaping through the oak casks and providing sustenance for the organisms that created the mould.
There was the pacemaker manufacturer in the mid-west who was puzzled by why anyone would be concerned about the data it collected from, literally, the beating hearts of those who used its devices. And the CEO of a Texan fizzy drinks maker who was bemused by our advice to consider the effects of sugar on diet.
But probably the best moment for me was being invited to address the board of a massive paper maker in the deep south. We were to recommend a broad sustainability strategy that would, among other things, appease protesters who were blocking important logging areas.
A big oval table awaited me, with a full board of 12 white people of a certain age. The CEO, fresh from the company jet, was shod in his signature cowboy boots. A jowly chief financial officer who looked like tobacco-chewing Slim Pickens, who played the driver in the movie Stagecoach, sat alongside the only woman on the board.
I was a few minutes into my presentation outlining macro trends and their expected impact on business, when Slim Pickens delivered a very loud stage whisper to the woman:
“Heck, I’ve never heard so much boooolsheeeet in all maa life! “
Welcome to America!
Peter Knight is chairman of the Context Group, a sustainability communications consultancy celebrating 25 years supporting companies in Europe and the Americas. He wrote a semi-regular column for Ethical Corporation from 2008 through to 2016
This article is part of the Winter 2021, and anniversary issue, of The Ethical Corporation. See also:
Joe Biden Barack Obama EPA mountain top mining Appalachians pollution ESG