Trading abroad pushes US businesses onto the sustainability agenda

Context set up in London in 1997: now it has a US office and offers sustainability services around the world. Mike Scott catches up with Peter Knight, the company’s co-founder, to see how its advice is adapting to different climates

Sustainability is a universal concept, but there is no doubt that its application varies from region to region around the world. In many ways, the UK has led the way in getting to grips with it, and from Europe it can appear that the US is lagging behind.

One person ideally placed to judge whether this is the case is Peter Knight, co-founder of sustainability consultancy Context, which helps clients on both sides of the Atlantic to formulate and implement sustainability strategies.

The business started in London in 1997 and established a US office in 2007. “There are some definite differences between the UK and US,” Knight says from his New York office, “the most obvious being that US companies are far more focused on the reputational and business advantages of investing in sustainability.” In Europe, many corporations just see the issue as part of doing business and not something to brag about, but in the US “there is a greater desire to market the benefits”.

For US companies, he adds, sustainability is a way to differentiate themselves from the competition, and although those that do it poorly veer towards greenwashing, for those that do it well the rewards are obvious. Some of the most high-profile examples of this are GE’s Ecomagination project and IBM’s Smarter Planet scheme.

The US made great strides in the 1970s through legislation such as the Clean Air Act.
“But,” says Knight, “for political reasons there was a retreat in the years that followed and the concept went off the radar a bit. Sustainable development as a concept was really launched at Rio 20 years ago but it did not catch on here in the same way as it did in Europe.”

However, US businesses are catching up rapidly as sustainability becomes more important, particularly for companies operating abroad. Context set up in New York in 2007 to take advantage of the trend. “We already had some clients in the US and we had some skills that had not yet emerged here,” Knight adds. “There is a big demand for consultancy services as people grapple with what these issues all mean.”

US enterprises also have to contend with a mass of environmental legislation and the Environmental Protection Agency remains a powerful force, despite concerted attempts by the Republican Party to clip its wings. “The sheer hassle of complying with rules such as emissions controls makes people think they’ve had enough.”

In the UK it is easy to run a business from London, but in the US “you really have to travel to your clients”, which is why his co-founder Simon Propper has recently opened a Los Angeles office.

Quite a lot of Context’s work is focused on internal communications and “helping companies to tell their stories to their own people –  companies realise that they need to keep their staff informed about what they are trying to achieve”.

Knight says: “There is a keen awareness of the risks involved in failing to respond to the sustainability agenda and a great deal of interest because one way for American companies to differentiate themselves from Chinese rivals is in having higher standards.

“Clients who are active in China are very keen to be seen to be environmentally responsible because it is important to the Chinese government, which wants companies to help them deal with issues such as water management and emissions control.”