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In conversation with... Guillaume Féry and Denis Leclerc

In conversation with…  

Digital consultant and connected city expert Guillaume Féry and Écotech Québec Founding President & CEO Denis Leclerc talk climate change, culture change, the role of technology and what every corporation can be doing right now to drive progress.

In the basement of a house in Lausanne, Switzerland, Guillaume Féry’s family recently faced the classic dilemma: what to do with a long-forgotten, broken-down video game console no one played with anymore? 

“The kids wanted to throw it away, my wife wanted to extend its life by using the only working feature, and I was wondering whether we could repair it,” Féry laughs. 

Féry has been a specialised engineer in tech-enabled sustainability across a variety of sectors for 20 years. From his work at global consulting giants to his volunteer efforts at some of the world’s leading initiatives on climate change (think United Nations), Féry is quick to draw a parallel between these kinds of seemingly small decisions families make every day, and their impact on resource use, as well as the way we consume. He’s particularly focused on digital technologies. 

“Production modes and overconsumption together with our growing demand for digital products is a burden for the environment,” Féry says. “We must face it and make decisions to adapt our behaviour. It’s time we take informed action, for a positive impact.”

It starts, he says, by enabling consumers and corporations to understand the basics, and get on the same page before focusing on the best ways to make the biggest impact. These topics require the consensus of all parties, not only experts and decision makers. The actions it will take to fight climate change must happen at all levels; everyone has a role to play. All of this must be backed up by broad knowledge sharing, to drive broad societal acceptance of the changes themselves.

Climate change and culture change go hand-in-hand

While the very real need for citizens—both corporate and private—to step up and tackle climate change once and for all may not be new, the sense of urgency around the issue is nothing if not burning. 

Last January, the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2020 pegged failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change as the top concern for its network of business leaders, NGOs, academics and others around the world. Not only was climate change the top risk by impact, but it took second place in terms of likelihood over the coming 10 years. 

Fast forward to now, and that hasn’t changed, but the world has. The global COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a health and economic crisis of remarkable proportions. Still, while some may worry that climate change could lose critical ground as countries, corporations, and citizens focus on surviving the pandemic, Féry is optimistic because the post-COVID recovery is an opportunity to revisit consumption and enter a low carbon era that is less profit-driven, and more focused on social and environmental aspects. Case in point: by August 2020, at least 30 OECD and key partner countries had already baked measures geared to encourage the transition to decarbonized economies right into their COVID-19 recovery programs. 

That’s welcome momentum for Féry, who says the next step forward requires cultural change at every level of public and private life. “Everything is on the table right now. Passionate entrepreneurs, money, a vision that is pretty clear. We know what is at stake. We have some regulatory frameworks and agreements. But there are challenges.”

Among them? A lack of consensus to align stakeholders around the central mission. Here in Canada, ÉcoTech Québec Founding President & CEO Denis Leclerc couldn’t agree more. 

“The rationale behind a green recovery is gaining momentum,” Leclerc explains. “It’s not only us talking about it here in clean tech, but also, unions, researchers and companies share this objective. It implies challenges and the challenge is: we cannot do it alone. We have to do it together. We need to build ways to create synergy and to be even more effective.”

And that, it seems, has always been the problem. A senior business leader who spent more than two decades working across the natural resources sector, Leclerc founded ÉcoTech Québec—a cluster representing the Québec cleantech network—with a vision of fostering a greener, healthier, and more competitive province. He planned to spend three years getting ÉcoTech Québec up and running before eventually returning to industry. A decade later, he’s still at the helm, buoyed by years of progress, and more confident than ever that solving climate change starts with a positive economic transformation. 

“We need culture change in many sectors of society, and we’re starting to see that take shape,” Leclerc says. Recent reports that Québec has the lowest rates of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of any Canadian province or territory resonates in the market, he says. More and more, businesses are seeing the returns on their investments—and not only the financial ones. 

That proof-is-in-the-pudding type messaging can be a powerful force in bringing stakeholders on board to drive real change. Both Féry and Leclerc cite the wealth of information and misinformation around what’s really ‘good or bad’ as central to enabling greater understanding of not only what causes climate change, but what curbs it. 

“Some people unfairly label whole sectors as good or bad. Airline companies are an enemy of the planet while the latest 5G gadgets are the most exciting thing,” Féry points out. “But too few people actually understand the consequences of our way of life on natural resources, GHG emissions and, more generally, the environmental impact of our everyday choices.”

Clearer top-down indicators can spur the kind of cultural shift required to tackle climate change in meaningful ways. From conversations around nuclear in France to the discussion around coal-fueled production lines of electric vehicles in Germany, that debate is likely to continue for some time. 

“We promote ‘clean’ energy vehicles, but if we take the entire life cycle of the product, things are not that simple,” says Féry. “When you scratch the surface, you realize that it’s maybe not so good or bad or black or white. Maybe it’s grey.”

Still, Féry and Leclerc agree clarity itself is only one piece of the puzzle. It will take clear vision paired with greater collaboration among corporations and consumers who show a real willingness to lead and nurture a cultural shift at all levels for a lasting impact on the climate. It’s a matter of reward, don’t just reprimand; show, don’t simply tell.

“We have the challenge of education or communication, making sure people realize with concrete examples that all the benefits are greater than the second prize,” reinforces Leclerc.

Ambassadors and influencers can play a big role here. That kind of reinforcement can take all shapes and sizes. Renowned Liverpool FC footballer Sadio Mané recently went viral among fans after being photographed using a smartphone with a cracked screen. Mané (known for his philanthropic efforts) made headlines for not needing the latest, newest tool his money could buy. Read: influencer behaviour connecting sustainability with quality of life, or even public health, could be a seed of possibility for the climate agenda. But everyone needs to play a part. While there may not be a silver bullet solution, Féry and Leclerc say corporations can definitely contribute, both in terms of leading the way, and encouraging others to follow suit. 

How else can corporations, consumers and governments work together to drive culture change? 

  1. Corporate commitments must get specific. 

It’s no longer enough to state a commitment to being carbon neutral. It’s time for companies to drill down into what, specifically, their commitments mean. “Right now, we have 1,500 companies across the world that represent $12 billion in revenue taking the commitment to be carbon neutral. This is a more concrete fact than what exactly they’re going to do,” explains Féry. He underpins the importance of transparency around the specific steps companies are taking, and a broad communications strategy that continues to tie actions with real ROI for stakeholders – internal and external alike. “You have to showcase or demonstrate what you’ve been doing and it has to be simple and credible. If not, you lose credibility and as a consequence, you could limit your access to funding,” stresses Leclerc.

  1. Business models must shift.

Embracing, or even inventing, new business models that move us away from the manufactured obsolescence trend can send a tremendous ripple effect across the market. Companies that move away from putting a green lens on their existing business model and actually bring in eco-design, long-lasting and recyclable products can play a pivotal part in driving the kind of functional economy the planet so badly needs. “If we’re looking at clean tech as a service – this type of business model is growing,” says Leclerc, whose encouraged by the traction Québec clean techs are gaining. “What I see in terms of the start-ups is they’re thinking beyond just their innovation and direct impact of their innovation. They’re looking at green impact when we’re talking about employees, but also in terms of the sector, in terms of creating a positive situation in the region where there’s a circular economy.” Leclerc says we can maximize the benefits of what’s happening in the clean teach space by taking down silos, and ensuring companies – and countries – aren’t innovating in isolation. Instead, players should be looking at others’ work and asking: how can we partner with them? 

  1. People must be part of the solution.

People (including students) care about the impact their employer has on the environment. In 2019, Fast Company, found nearly half of all survey respondents (and 75% of millennial workers) said they’d accept a smaller salary to work for a company that’s environmentally responsible. Nearly 70% tied the strength of the organization’s sustainability plan to their willingness to stay with the company for the long term. That’s a huge opportunity for companies to not only do the right thing, but engage their employees, in the sustainability agenda. “In the journey of a business, it costs a lot of money to recruit an employee. That means we must find ways of fostering retention, and encouraging people to feel proud about the ways their organization is fighting for the climate and protecting the environment,” Leclerc says. As stakeholders and investors redefine the way a  long-term value, that kind of engagement becomes even more important. A quick scan of Canada’s Greenest Employers shows innovation – from smart buildings to bee apiaries on office rooftops. Fast followers would be wise to embrace a similar approach. “Companies should make sure that non-financial factors are clear to suppliers, customers, stakeholders and also employees. They’re key in this,” Leclerc says. 

A sense of optimism for 2021 

Féry is excited about the future. “We are in a world in which knowledge and many methodology tools are massively accessible. It’s also the case with environmental impacts and climate change. We know the big polluters but it’s a bit unfair to designate the bad and the good in black and white terms. Airlines have a lot to do but they only account for 3% of GHG – maybe we should give them more credit and time to adapt. Everyone must start moving to evolve, sometimes radically.”

That comes right back to his family, huddled over that broken console, wondering if want or need will determine their next decision. These choices at the individual consumer and major corporate level are more connected than ever before. It’s the same conversation at Leclerc’s home, where he and a neighbour looked long and hard at replacing their aging lawnmowers with a shared new one last summer. Climate change won’t be solved overnight, but as a sum of our collective decisions at every level, and in every aspect of life.

“There’s no point to trying to be green if you don’t embed basic things in your day to day,” Féry says. He’s not wrong.

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