Brexit for Breakfast: Digesting What Brexit Means for Sustainability

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

As the head of a U.K.-based multinational’s Safety, Health, Environmental, and Sustainability function (and a former temporary resident of England), my fascination with the Brexit outcome has been marginally greater than, oh I don’t know . . . that of a Manhattan-based owner of a Scotland golf course. In fact, on the “morning after,” I was in a quaint Cambridge, U.K., hotel room preparing my remarks for a panel discussion later that day on the prospects for governments, financial institutions, and industry to collectively "rewire" our economy and promote sustainable growth. So, as the thoughts of most Brits turned to the tanking Pound and the crashing FTSE in those early hours, my musings were more self-centered: “how in the world am I going to incorporate this into my talk?” Over a full English breakfast, I reached what is likely a ridiculously naïve and outrageously optimistic conclusion: perhaps this is just what the planet ordered.

EU Flag. Source: Wikimedia CommonsMy scrambled eggs became a metaphor for my initial assessment: given the overall complexity of disentanglement, any U.K. effort to move away from European Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) law and regulation will be slow and painful, if it occurs at all. Short-term confusion and speculation seems likely to give way to pragmatism and a desire to avoid change for change’s sake, particularly given the more pressing challenges and uncertainties associated with Brexit (see the financial sector . . . !). So, it seems reasonable to expect an independent U.K. to retain alignment with key EU controls like REACH and the Water Framework Directive to avoid both the complexity and disruption risks that would arise through parallel or duplicative regimes. Having said that, the EU will miss the U.K.’s pragmatic, risk-based approach to EHS regulation. Without that voice, future EU-based EHS law could become more absolute, hazard-based, and stringent. But it’s early—who knows and frankly, who cares. We’ll figure it out.

Buttering my toast spread my thoughts in a broader, and more important, direction about sustainability generally: assuming Brexit is no aberration—and I don’t believe it is—the need for nation states and their leaders to rethink old notions of success and prosperity will continue to grow. Like the stunning popularity of Trump and Sanders in the United States, Brexit is a proxy for a growing mistrust and dissatisfaction with the status quo. People are disconnected, disaffected, and distrustful. Sure, worries about short-term financial prospects (along with some downright scary nativism) breeds some of this, but concerns like “you don’t care enough about my or my family’s future” are also very much at play.

This bodes well for international cooperation on Sustainability. Why? Because in response, bold new leaders will be required to convene a different, albeit difficult, dialogue about what “progress,” “hope,” and “success” are all about and what protecting our future really demands. Quarterly earnings reports and monthly unemployment figures won’t go away, but they will be integrated with new indicators of sustainable growth and prosperity: safe and habitable cities; clean water; ethical business interactions; disease prevention; fair and living wages; and a decarbonized economy. In other words, the Brexit vote and its analogues can, in their most optimistic light, help promote a new brand of leadership that redirects older voter anger and cynicism—and younger voter fear and desperation—into programs, policies, and dialogue that foster a longer-term, collective good.

Europe has, to some extent, been a laboratory for this type of progressive thinking (see REACH, climate policy, worker protection, fraud, etc.). Yet, negotiating the terms of Brexit and managing its aftermath are likely to preoccupy Brussels for some time. So, perhaps Brexit creates an opening for a new framework for international thinking, collaboration, and action on how to deliver real, sustainable value to people and the planet. Fortuitously, the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a “plan of action for people, planet, and prosperity”—provide just that. If Brexit is a harbinger of a weakened or distracted EU, the 17 SDGs can fill some of that void and become a fresh platform for progressive and bold international collaboration that protects the planet and its inhabitants over the long term. In fact, Goal 17 is to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.” The first Partnership Exchange takes place on July 18 and I trust the role and influence of the SDGs in a post-Brexit world will feature in the dialogue. I hope the mood is sanguine.

So there it is—nothing muddles the mind better than black pudding, beans, and dry toast! The pessimists are sounding the death knell for multi-national cooperation on climate, trade, and human rights. Some are even predicting a quick demise of the Paris agreement. I look at it differently.

If voters are saying: “you’ve messed up the country, now go fix it” and our kids are screaming “you screwed up the planet, so we’ll fix it,” then our collective task is to build a bridge between the two. Perhaps Brexit and its corollaries are the wake-up call we need to instill some fresh thinking about the values, policies, and leadership that will help people, economies, and the planet thrive over the long term. Sure, rejection hurts, but often we turn around later and say, “thanks, I needed that!”