RSM STAR Sustainability Forum 2019 Report

RSM STAR Sustainability Forum 2019 Report

Looking critically at sustainable business

The sustainability agenda has pushed businesses into a revolutionary period. While this has prompted organisations to re-evaluate ‘business as usual’ and subsequently lead to innovation, the mission to practise sustainability in business has been met with pressing criticism. Questions arise such as: Who is responsible for leading the change: corporations or consumers? How do different business sectors measure ‘positive impact’? What are the limitations of using the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for sustainable business? Has business truly changed for the better?

This year’s RSM STAR Sustainability Forum put these critical questions centre stage with the aim to expand the conversation on sustainable business among students, researchers, and leading industry professionals.

In her opening speech to the audience of students and the wider RSM community, Cambridge Innovation Center’s Strategic Director of Europe Melissa Ablett expressed her excitement in hosting a student-led event on sustainability and social resilience. “We can fix the world through innovation that can be found within community and spaces [like these],” she said.  

‘We have been extracting value from society and the planet – so our profit is close to nothing’

The Forum’s keynote speaker was global ambassador of B Corporations Marcello Palazzi. He gave an impassioned address about building a regenerative economy, a mission that seeks to shift from exploitation to exploration of natural and human resources which repairs the planet and society.

He also championed entrepreneurs as the leading innovators disrupting ‘business as usual’.

“How can we shift the capitalist system towards more positive than negative impact? Entrepreneurs can get us there!” Palazzi said. But he also pointed out that a great portion of the existing 10,000 B Corp-certified companies include bigger companies who want to take on the journey towards a regenerative economy. “We have been extracting value from society and the planet – so our profit is close to nothing.” There needs to be a shift away from mere profits, he said, to profit plus impact.

Smashing sustainability clichés

Four professionals in the field of sustainable business and social resilience gathered on stage to form a panel and smash sustainability clichés.

Moderated by RSM Professor of Strategic Philanthropy and Volunteering Lucas Meijs, the panel comprised of Anniek Mauser (sustainability director at Unilever), Arnoud Molenaar (chief resilience officer at the City of Rotterdam), Justin Pariag (head of sustainable business at De Bijenkorf), and Talitha Muusse (millennial expert/social entrepreneur). The panel hosted vibrant debates that explored the sustainable clichés into much detail.

One foundational cliché was ‘it is impossible to be against sustainability’, to which all the panelists shared their own anecdotes on experiencing resistance when presenting sustainable practices. According to Mauser, sustainability is merely a term that one needs to define on their own, especially in such a polarizing political climate. Building upon this, Molenaar argued that strategic framing is essential to the delivery of disruptive practices, noting that transparency and potential benefits are key selling points. In addition to framing, Pariag reminded the predominantly student audience that the common understanding of ‘sustainability’ has evolved over the decades but that the necessity to create business resilience against the changing environment – both social and natural— is ever-prevalent.

However, Prof. Meijs and Muusse both reminded the panel that criticisms about sustainable business are not always coming from climate-deniers but from progressives as well. Millennials, says Muusse, are critical about [social and climate] justice and accountability. On a similar tone, Prof. Meijs argued that perhaps ‘sustainability’ can be seen as too conservative, referring to the keynote address regarding repairing and building up society and the planet.

Breakout sessions

Participants then attended breakout sessions in which they explored cases and real-life issues with business representatives from various industries.

Capgemini: storytelling for positive futures

Annelies Hermens is the Group Environment Lead at Capgemini. Moderated by RSM associate professor Dr Frank Wijen, Capgemini presented its business case to develop a new mobility policy for its employees to encourage the use of less polluting means of transport.

One of the main solutions to this challenge that came out of the session was the creation of a carpooling system, using electric cars. Other ideas included the strategic placements of e-bikes at key locations to avoid the use of cars.

Corekees: sustainable start-ups

Tamar van Heesewijk and Nick van Heesewijk are co-founders of the start-up Corekees. They and Corekees’ marketing officer Kelly Chen presented their business case to find the sweet spot between business and sustainability with limited resources.

The outcome of this business case, which addressed issues in scaling up the business while being sustainable and profitable, was the advice to redistribute the profits generated to local farmers for fair payment, while using the remaining profits to reinvest into the business, for example through campaigning efforts.

The breakout session was moderated by the director of RSM’s positive change initiative Eva Rood.

EY: integrated reporting

Wesley Boone and Catalina Hemmink are sustainability professionals at EY. Moderated by RSM Professor of Banking and Finance Dirk Schoenmaker, key questions surrounding integrated reporting were raised including its link with the company’s ‘license to operate’ and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The outcome of this breakout session, which addressed EY’s increasing synergy between its Climate Change and Sustainability Services department with finance and accountancy, is that a ‘sustainability accountant’ will become a new profession that aims to diminish the silos between the two departments.

ING: banking for the future

Sandra Schoonhoven is Head of Sustainability at ING. Moderated by RSM project manager Dieuwertje Bosma, ING presented their business case to activate sustainable behaviour of potential house-owners that are resistant to invest on sustainable energy consumption. The challenge was tackled from three different angles: data quality, behaviour, and financial solutions.

How to deal with this business case was threefold. Firstly, in order to have accurate and useful data, a collaboration platform is necessary to combine the data from the energy label and the data about energy consumption provided by energy providers. Secondly, ING will create a framing strategy to incite optimism and opportunity among its customers. Thirdly, customers can rent out their roofs for solar panels to incentivize sustainable power generation.

Plennid: sustainable business models

Kees van Rengs, the founder of Plennid, presented his business case to make the production of mannequins more circular. Moderated by RSM’s Tom Blansjaar, the breakout teams actively discussed ‘thinking circular’ in depth. Many ideas were brought forth for this business case, including the use of 3D printing to localize production of mannequins, repurposing shredded plastic to create mannequins, and holograms to replace physical mannequins altogether.

Wolkat: strategy for textile recycling

Kimberly van der Wal is responsible for business and product development at Wolkat. Moderated by RSM assistant professor Dr Guido Berens, the business case addressed the challenges of having Wolkat’s products – clothes made with recycled textiles – succeed against its competition. One of these hurdles include the convincing potential buyers about the quality of their products. The solutions presented aims to exploit their competitive advantage: transparency. Products should be marketed that highlights their ‘expanding lifespan’.

KPMG-RSM Sustainability Master Thesis Award

The afternoon schedule included recognition for student research, with the presentation of the KPMG-RSM Sustainability Master Thesis Award to Paul Ruijs, MSc Global Business & Sustainability graduate from 2018, who is now a sustainable finance intern at United Nations Global Impact. His thesis is entitled Overcoming short-termism of investors, a barrier for sustainable development contributions – An explanatory research that studies to what extent companies can curb short-termism in order to foster sustainability. Runner up was MSc Supply Chain Management alumnus Annelou Ringers, whose thesis is about socially-responsible purchasing in the fast-fashion industry.

In the spirit of RSM’s mission to be a force for positive change, the Forum’s ‘College Tour’ day programme prompted self-reflection from RSM’s Dean Steef van de Velde on RSM’s role in greater society. The event was moderated by Prof. Rob van Tulder, professor of international business-society management at RSM.