Some time ago I had the pleasure of attending day two of edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2019, which put forward the theme of Embracing the fierce urgency of NOW.  

It was an invigorating meeting that included highlights such as:

  • A workshop on storytelling to seize audiences with the emotional power of sustainability (run by Alexandra and Lawrence Stubbings)
  • The 288 financial institutions that are applying $32 trillion worth of pressure on public companies to transition away from fossil fuels (Léon Wijnands, ING)
  • Coca-Cola's early moves to address the plastics issue through active take-back (Therese Noorlander, Coca-Cola)
  • Design concepts developed in the Thinkathon to solve the single-use plastic problem of workday lunches through behavior change (A going-to-a-café-instead campaign, because “If you have time to meet, you have time to eat!”) and a novel circular packaging offering (pre-ordered meals in reusable retro lunchboxes – cool!). The Thinkathon had designers embedded in the teams to generate sleek high-impact visuals!

I found a talk by Mike Barry (M&S) on courage in leadership to be the most emotionally charged and stirring, and I guess I wasn’t alone in this. Even before his talk, in an attendee poll, Mike Barry came out as the most inspiring leader/thinker (ahead of even David Attenborough!) in the word cloud of responses. Barry’s message was both a heartfelt call to action and a challenge to the audience to be better leaders.

Now, reflecting a week later, I have to say the story that left the most enduring impression came from Jamie Quinn of ENGIE. Quinn, as part of a panel, talked about the radical transformation of ENGIE toward renewables and away from fossil fuels as well as the company’s progress and current commitments. Part of what is so compelling to me about the story of ENGIE is the context. After Quinn’s talk, I looked into ENGIE’s background a little bit more, and what I found was truly amazing.

ENGIE’s origins go back to 1822, 70-90 years prior to the founding of other large extractive concerns like Royal Dutch Shell, BP or Exxon (Standard Oil). Suez, ENGIE’s predecessor or original company, is in fact one of the oldest continuously-operating companies in the world.

Suez was a leading French energy and utilities multinational for many decades when, around 2006, it merged with Gaz de France into GDF Suez with the goal of becoming the single largest producer of natural gas in the world. When the complex merger was complete in 2008, it was the world’s second largest utility. Through further acquisitions, GDF Suez went on to consolidate into the world’s largest independent power producer in 2010. So quite simply, this is one of the world’s oldest companies, and at times it has been the largest natural gas producer globally. If you’re thinking about anti-sustainability cultural entrenchment, GDF Suez has all of the “dinosaur” factors: big, old and fossil-based. Not only is the company a BIG and OLD energy behemoth, it’s arguably the biggest and oldest!

This is why what happened next is so compelling to me.

In the 2010s, GDF Suez shifted its strategy. The company began expanding capacity of renewables and divesting from fossil fuels. In 2015, GDF Suez rebranded itself as ENGIE and committed to end new coal plant construction.

You can look back over the past few years of ENGIE’s investments in energy capacity to see the progress: the growth of renewables as well as the closure and decommissioning of coal plants. The progress has been consistent and substantial. While some companies have made commitments, or stated ambitions, ENGIE has made progress. This all happened within a company whose core technologies, intellectual capacities, culture, assets and investments were grounded in fossil fuels for over a century.

What enabled this remarkable shift? From the outside, it’s apparent that ENGIE has made innovation central to its business. Engagement and collaboration with government was almost certainly an early driver for this change as well. The factors that allow a transition like this will be different for every company. What is important is determining those factors that can enable such a change in your own organization.

If a company like ENGIE—one of the oldest and largest energy companies in the world—can transition to a fossil-free future, truly any organization can.

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