Governments as accelerators

What do we need from the public sector, if the pace of change towards sustainable business is to speed up?

This month our regular round-up leads off with an interview – here sustainability director,André Veneman, tells the story of AkzoNobel’s journey from compliance and governance as the driver, to a principles-based approach, and now with collaboration and partnership across the whole value chain driving change. It’s an inspiring tale and one that others will recognize and aspire to.

But one thing struck me forcibly in his account: there’s no mention of governments being involved. Yet governments’ purchasing comprises anywhere between a quarter (USA) and a half (Scandinavia) of the economy. And in the key market segment for AkzoNobel, construction, governments make many of the rules through planning and building control about minimum standards, for example on insulation and protective coatings.

Personally, I’m no believer that governments should take control, nor indeed that they should set too many rules.  However I do think they must have a seat at the table in our sustainability debates. And they uniquely are able to create a so-called level playing field, where the leaders like AkzoNobel have the competitive space to develop and bring to market the products we need if sustainable living is to become truly possible.  That’s all about smart regulation to facilitate innovation, not a straight-jacket of control.

I’ve commented before on CCBriefing about the role of government – faltering steps by the UK government towards an effective policy on CSR and why the ‘green economy’ needs a green society, with governments involved.

Recently I’ve started writing for Guardian Sustainable Business on the interface between politics and business. For example, here’s my priority list of five actions that business leaders should be asking of the political parties, as we enter the pre-election manifesto writing phase.

My essential point is that government can accelerate change by setting the parameters within which business can do what it does best – take risk, innovate, invest, produce and above all sell.  Governments will need to change their mindsets if they are to embrace this new role.

Let me know what you think – comment below or contact me directly.  It’s a topic I’m sure to return to many times.

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