by Caroline van der Veeken

I wonder if I have ever been to such a fantastic study location as the Ucliva hotel in Waltenzburg/Vuorz. The scenery is absolutely smashing.

Friends of course were jealous 😉

Module number 4 of the Sustainability in Business program brought us to the Swiss region of Chur.

In this module, we were to dive into the world of sustainability and design. More precisely, we were to learn about sustainability challenges as drivers for product and design innovation. This module’s professor was Prof. Bernard Rothbucher , who is head of research at Salzburg University of Applied Sciences and at the School of Design and Product Management.

Rotbucher in characteristic t-shirt

Rotbucher’s approach to sustainability is the opposite of Olli’s (Oliver Schmid-Schönbein, our professor in Module 3) approach. Where Olli takes businesses as starting points, Bernard starts with consumers. It took me a while to figure that out. Things became clearer to me after a short interview with him.

“When consumers are happy with a product or service”, Bernard argues, “they’ll keep buying it. And this enables the businesses to prosper and keep on developing in a sustainable way.” His design thinking is, in fact, quite close to marketing. Bernard continues: “design starts with human beings, with the user. When you understand the user you can influence him positively. And that actually works toward sustainability.”

We talked about sustainability as the innovation driver for design management. In Bernard’s vision, design is much more than the actual shaping/designing of a product. To him, design expands from researching a product (who will need it and why?), to getting out the ideas (how will the consumer’s needs be met?) and tossing these ideas about with different people in the company. In order for design to bloom, management needs to have more creative skills and designers need to have more management skills. Bernhard feels design must be integrated in the whole developing process. This, in fact, is what I advise my clients when it comes to building up communication strategies.

Get to work

In the afternoon, we started working on a hands-on assignment: Imagine: the Ucliva Hotel wants to be the center of sustainability awareness in the Vuorz area. Design a product and a service necessary to create an authentic and universal experience for locals and visitors; young and old; for interested and currently non involved people. Quite a task! And, we ended by playing with lego. Let me explain how this worked.

As with all solutions we must come up with, researching and thinking it over is the key to finding bringing up these solutions. As I did in journalism, it’s about talking to everybody who is (slightly) involved in the issue, reading as much about it as possible, and ending by having a raw picture of what’s happening around the issue being researched. So, we took off to the village, talking to people about their village (if you understand the Romaensch language, but fortunately, one of my group members could talk Swiss German).

the fictional Mrs Janski

A peasant women (here she is, we called her Mrs. Janski) told us that winter time was not her favorite time in the village because it is very cold and the traffic in her village is horrific. Yes, traffic because of ski tourism, that is. In a local newspaper we found that the Ucliva Hotel needed CHF 250.000 to fund renovations. Also, we found that the Ucliva Hotel maintains high quality standards for suppliers, and for this reason, not all farmers from the village could deliver their food products to Ucliva.

These pieces of research combined, got us on the track of promoting Ucliva as a bio-certified area. An area where tourists are transported to the ski slopes by an electric bus, and thus ensuring Mrs Janski’s happiness. Tourists were supposed to pay extra taxes to sustain the bio area, but in return they got this absolutely clean and biological environment to stay in. This money would then get reinvested in the community, for instance to help local farmers and producers raise their standards and thus be able to supply to the Ucliva Hotel. And here’s the brand: U cliva, U cheese, U ski. And here’s the 3D version of our new brand. It’s about U!

THE sustainable brand

The sustainable brand - 2

It’s actually quite fun to break down a problem in such a way. One of my colleague participants was absolutely thrilled! In her company, or at least in her department, they’ve never looked at their customer needs in such a detailed way.

Ski sustainably

After this assignment, and after another fabulous dinner at Ucliva, Tobias Luthe  came by to tell us more about his small scale production of sustainable wooden skis . Tobias, at 35-year old professor (?!) in sustainable sciences at Chur University, spends his spare time developing and producing these fabulous skis. He actually won a prestigious prize with them; his high-tech eco free ride skis won the first eco design award of the world’s major sporting goods industry fair ISPO in 2008.

Thomas told us about the bumpy road he has been on in the last few years. And even so, we all felt he had gold in his hands; eco-ski’s would certainly be mainstream sooner or later! But between dream and reality there is a gap; Thomas told us that in the last three years, he had to switch production sites three times. Because of this, and to stabilize Grown’s production, he hasn’t been able to spend the time he wanted on cranking up his production level or his marketing. When I look at his website though, it looks like a professional brand to me…

In fact, Thomas underwrote Bernard’s main message: if you have sustainable products, you need to talk about them. Media gives meaning to the product by telling stories. We have to tell better stories with better products. Thomas: “This ski, this product, is in fact a wooden beam. It’s not very sexy, unless you start talking in the name of this wooden beam, to convince customers about it.”

True words. Spread them.

The Sustainability in Business Class knows about all the major environmental problems the world is facing. But how do we take it from there? How do we actually start integrating sustainability in businesses? Mid October we really kicked off. “I’m not paid to think mainstream”, and other useful learnings.

by Caroline van der Veeken

I could feel a sigh of relief going through class Friday morning October 14; today we would touch base, finally we would go in depth on how to apply sustainability in business in practice. Last modules with the forest-and-the-fire-experience were interesting, but some of us were puzzled as to how building fires in woods contributed to their knowledge of sustainability. And so was I. Although from a reporting point of view this experience of course was great.

Oliver

No nature today. Instead, at the Hub we had Otti, Michael and Oliver. Otti Bisang, the former sustainability officer at Credit Suisse; Harvard professor Michael Porter and Oliver Schmid-Schönbein. Let’s start off with Oliver. He is a consultant of E2 management consulting, a firm that helps companies from all sectors develop and implement environmental and sustainability management.

Oliver’s main message was that a sustainability strategy is an integrated strategy of market, financial, social and environmental drivers. How new is this, one might think. But in fact, this is new and he is right. Oliver: “So often CSR departments, the do-good-guys, are a separate part of the company. Of course, sometimes you need isolated projects to let it grow in peace. But purely have CSR focus on social and environmental issues is just too isolated, because these issues are societal issues that are not the starting point for businesses.” After all, businesses don’t ask themselves what the need is for society from a sustainability perspective. Instead, they work on markets through their products. So, let companies think of how renewing or advancing their products can contribute to society and/or the environment.

Michael

From there on, we discussed business strategies, performance measurements, value creation strategies. As a communications professional, I’m not that familiar with all these concepts and found it hard to stay tuned. After all, my work is about telling target audiences about companies that really make a difference.

What I did like though, was the discussion Oliver started on the views of Harvard professor Michael Porter.  He invented the concept of CSV , creating social value; this concept blurs the boundary between profit and nonprofit, by identifying and expanding the connections between societal and economic progress.  He wrote about it in the Harvard Business Review in January 2011, with the unambiguous title ‘Reinventing capitalism’. With his speeches and articles he’s planted the seeds of sustainability in the board rooms of companies. I like one of his videos . Look at the faces of the businessmen in his audience! It seems as if they’ve never heard such a thing.

We discussed whether we need a Porter, who clearly has good ideas, but doesn’t give tools to start working on these ideas in practice. I’d say you need both a visionary like Porter ánd someone like Oliver who helps companies start in practice.

One of my fellow participants felt so inspired by all this, she sighed she should actually change jobs.  Out of financial services, into change management in society. Now that would be a brilliant outcome of this course already.

Otti

Off we went to hear more stories on sustainability in business practice, with Otti Bisang. Otti brought life to the whole sustainability process! In class we were actually talking about the Otti approach 😉

20 Years ago, Bisang was the first – and only – employee to be focused on sustainability within financial services group Credit Suisse. He gave us a most wonderful insight in the way he proceeded with his job and managed to leave Credit Suisse recently with up to 45 employees working on the issue of sustainability and ethical investing . How did he do it?

Credit Suisse’s key driver for addressing sustainability was the potential risk they ran on environmental pollution, back in the eighties. They had counted over 51000 (!) potential risks in Switzerland alone, such as contaminated soil, acid rain, etcetera. The corporate clients of Credit Suisse would likely face the costs of cleaning up of all this. But, most likely, they didn’t have money to do so. Most likely (again) they would borrow the money from their bank, Credit Suisse. If these corporate clients couldn’t pay back the money, and CS decided to foreclosure these clients to get his money back, then under Swiss law CS would be the owner of the cleanup! In practice, Credit Suisse was facing cleanup costs for over 51.000 sites. A huge risk! And that’s where Otti came in. Together with two other banks he covered the risks. And at the same time Otti started addressing environmental issues at Credit Suisse. And of course, Otti had the board interested in the issues since he had helped CS reduce its risks considerably.

And here a few of his hints:

1)      Get your top management involved in your sustainability efforts. One can very well use risks as a driver.

2)      Get your top management to sign a statement, for instance the UN Global Compact

3)      Get certified management systems. These function as external drivers; if the management doesn’t comply to a certain standard, the company loses certifications and therefore credibility

4)      Go networking with other companies, peers, NGO’s, journalists, etcetera. Tell them what you’re up to and learn from their efforts.

5)      Find internal and external advocates who support you

6)      Ask critical questions at the right time. Not always you should address the board in board meetings, sometimes a little chat over the coffee machine can be just as fruitful.

Still I wondered how far an insurer/bank as Credit Suisse wil or can go; after all, these kind of companies are not the most progressive players in the game. Recently I heard a speech by a sustainability manager at a Dutch investment bank. He advised one of his corporate clients to stay in Birma, purely out of commercial considerations. “If we are not investing in Birma, then the Chinese will get in and all will get much worse.” No political and/or ethical aspects taken into consideration?! I can imagine these kind of discussions taking place at Credit Suisse as well.

But nevertheless, you need the kind of Bisang employees to build up a truly, integrated sustainability department at businesses.  Otti gave me the feeling he saw his work as a – very important – game. If he couldn’t achieve his goals through plan A he just as easy switched to plan B. “I’m not paid to think mainstream”, used to be his credo. All for the good cause of having his company focus on sustainability. Otti is my kind of change maker; tough, convinced, with intrinsic motivation, knowledgeable, but at the same time diplomatic, playfull and certainly not stubborn.

My key learnings from these two days in class were first of all, to acknowledge that sustainability projects do not differ from any other projects within companies; you’ll need proper project management methodologies. And secondly: be tough and convincing, allow youself to be happy with small steps, underpromise and overdeliver and GET IT DONE!

BTW: did you know that BMW is the most sustainable company within the Dow Jones Sustainability Index? It’s not because of their hybrid cars, but because the Quandt family ownes most of the shares. Short term profit maximalisation, a goal many shareholder have, is not their goal…

I’m in a Swiss forest, I’m supposed to stay here for the next 24 hours, I don’t have a tent, it’s raining cats and dogs and I hear thunder. However, my spirits are high and I’m not feeling uncomfortable at all. What happened here?

by Caroline vander Veeken

Well, this is part two of the sustainability course. We’re on a nature retreat. Idea behind is that, through this outdoor experience, we can learn a lot from nature. Every one of us was asked to find a nice spot in this forest, that could be our home for the next day. I immediately knew what my perfect spot was: the one looking out on a little waterfall and a small stream. A room with a view! That’s me, definitely. Then, we had to make a fire to get warm and prepare our meals. To do this on my own was in my mind completely impossible, since I’ve never made a fire (except than with fire bricks) and surely not during twilight in the woods with fire materials that had gone wet because of the thunderstorm. I didn’t want my good mood to be spoiled because of multiple attempts to get this fire going. And indeed, I didn’t manage. Mainly because of the bad conditions but also, fair is fair, because I had already decided that I couldn’t make it work. It was interesting for me to see that some of my fellow participants were actually very committed to get this fire ablaze and they managed!

After a while I was sitting in front of my huge fire. Yes, with a little help from the facilitators I managed to get it going – and it was Fan-tas-tic! My fire made me warm, made me dry and made me have an even better mood. I asked my neighbors Celia and Michael over to have them admire my fire, but of course the chocolate I offered them did it J Anyway, sitting in front of my fire I wondered if less is more. Less, of course, living with less resources, as I did in these woods. Well, that evening I certainly thought this was true. Look at how rough these 24 hours were, compared to my normal life. And look how elated I felt! I expected to feel really uncomfortable, cold and insecure.But nothing of the sort!

The next morning though I felt different. After a half night of sleep on a thin sleeping pad, my back felt sore, I was really tired, the fire had gone out and I longed for a dry and warm environment. Our facilitators had asked us to find out what the trees told us. Well, they didn’t say much to me. But to Celia they said loud and clear to get out of this forest because this was theirs. Hilarious.

 

Although tiredness kicked in during that day, we had some very nice exchanges. For instance, in pairs we talked about our vision, ethics and courage. We were asked to listen to the other person and then intuitively come up with a symbol or image for this person and share this impression with the rest of the group. I thought my symbol for Peter, a light house, was well chosen. He’s very good at overseeing large issues, very good at statistics and figures. Peter lets his light shine on bigger problems, so that people working on it will literally feel enlightened.

I was very touched by the symbol he picked for me. It’s a white dove (not just a dove – no, a white one!) that flies through the storm in order to deliver the message of sustainability. Wow… This is certainly what I’m committed to as a communications professional.

Needless to say, I’ve booked my trip toZurichfor the next module of this sustainability course. I’m hooked already 🙂

In mid September, on my way to Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, I was thinking about what I expected of these first four days of the course in Sustainable Business.  This course is a joint initiative between the University of St Gallen Institute for Economy and the Environment and the Business School Lausanne. What would a sustainability course from these renowed business schools look like? What would my fellow participants be like? I had no idea. What I knew for sure is that I was very, very curious about it all.  And also I knew for sure that this curiosity would help me in reporting on the program.

So here I am, Caroline van der Veeken, your sustainability reporter, reporting on the contents and classes of this sustainability program. Learning by doing, on the way.

Thinking of sustainability makes you wonder what this term actually means. Is it climate change? Is it about putting off the lamps in your house you don’t need? Is it about the failed Kopenhagen Treaty? Is it about consumerism, a disinterest in the world we’re living in? We discussed definitions, causes and consequences the first day of the program. Gradually, during the day, talking about all the problems human kind is facing, I felt more and more depressed. My fellow participant Veronique sighed ‘I think I’m gonna cry’. My other fellow participant Michael said that it felt like drinking from the fire hose – too much too fast. And I too felt completely lost; all these ecological problems, the water shortage, the 1,5 planet we’re already consuming, the enormous impact all problems will have to our livelihoods, so many people who are and will be suffering. Where should I start changing? And why? Because what I can contribute is definitely not enough.

Surely, this could not be the intent of the professors? Making us feel depressed? Lateron I decided this hád been their intent. Katrin Muff, Madelon Evers and Thomas Dyllick were actually making us face reality. Well thanks, if you wanted to confuse us, you did a great job.But how to proceed?

Depressed and all, we prepared for the closing speech of the day by Thomas Vellacott. He’s a Program Director of WWF Switzerland. And what I hadn’t expected at all: his words and attitude proved to be my antidote. He showed me perspective again by telling us how WWF works and what steps they make. They look at the bigger picture and decided on three ways of coping with the issues: getting more from less, increasing resilience of natural systems and by thinking the impossible.

Funny thing is that in my work back home for NGO’s in foreign aid (that is basically eradicating poverty) I never ask myself the question where to start or why to start at all. I just start! I learned now that sustainability – even though the issue is not at all alien to me – is a new field of work, where I have to find my own starting point. And if I, working for NGO’s,already experience difficulties starting off, how must business executives feel…? Where should they start in making their business sustainable?

Feeling refreshed in mind again, we started the second day. The main focus was to evaluate potential opportunities and challenges for business. What can businesses do to take their responsibility for sustainability in their field of work? We discussed the issue from a much more practical angle than the day before. On top of this, three representatives of Swiss business (SBB, the Swiss railway company, Energie-Agentur der Wirtschaft (EnAW) and Schweizer Metallbau) presented their cases. Cases on which all participants of the sustainability course will work for the next year. Sustainability in practice! I was assigned to the case of Schweizer Metallbau. They want to further enhance their sustainability business model. I’ve never felt particularly attracted to the metal industry, to put it mildy, but this I do like. A metal company that has sustainability in it’s core values, amazing!