Driving sustainability as part of business

Sustainability Strategy Talk with Louise König

Board mindset and measurable targets are key to drive corporate sustainability. Point out the direction and develop a business agenda for sustainability with clear goals. Decide how you as a company want to contribute to societal development.  This was the broad message from sustainability professional Louise König, speaking at the 27th November ILA online "Sustainability Strategy Talk"

Setting the tone is vital, Louise believes. She highlighted the importance of her job title: ”manager sustainability business development” and that she reports to the CEO of the Swedish office of Ramboll, a leading engineering, architecture and consultancy. “This sends a signal to the organisation that this is a subject senior management want to drive throughout the business,” she said, speaking online to Sophie Öberg, member of the ILA Sustainability Strategy for Boards committee. Yes there are key performance indicators (KPIs) upon which Louise and the CEO are assessed, but perhaps more important is generating a cultural shift in the way the employees operate on a daily basis.
Ramboll is a consultancy firm, based in Denmark and employs 16,500 people globally. Group head office sets the tone on sustainability by issuing guidelines relating to “how we work, what we offer clients, and how we advocate in society,” Louise explained. The first focuses on details such as staff travel options, canteen food, company buildings and so on. The second deals with the extent to which sustainability is embedded in company services. Finally, comes Ramboll’s work with local and global organisations such as the United Nations, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development or the World Economic Forum.
This drive comes from the top and is informed by direct strategic thinking. “We build strategy with clear targets and goals, and then I process these with a management team including the CEO. This is then discussed with a separate advisory board and anchored with the full board,” Louise explained. “The advisory board is there to provoke us, to challenge us from an external perspective,” Louise explained. 

Working the details
“My role is to ensure that all services we offer have a sustainability edge and can be commercialised,” Louise explained. “A lot of this is seeking out the people in the company and asking them how they advocate for sustainability and what issues they have,” Louise explained. There is then regular follow up with business units to monitor how they are delivering on sustainability, both within the corporate structure but also in relation to clients.

Nevertheless, they do set benchmarks when they can, and in this need to be creative. “We have sustainability KPIs on which our CEO is measured, and we have added additional benchmarks to that,” Louise said. The more basic metrics include the carbon footprint on travel arrangements and company buildings. They also take a granular approach, selecting about ten of their largest projects, and studying them closely on different sustainability dimensions, and working with clients on delivery. This might include gauging carbon reduction effectiveness, the extent to which outcomes are aligned with the UN’s sustainable development goals, how social sustainability is being enhanced, and so on. “As a consultancy firm, our major contribution comes through our client contribution. Can we support a client to reach the Paris Agreement, meeting 1.5C degree, halving the carbon emissions? then we have succeeded”

Culture key
Louise recognised that cultural and business factors work in favour of Ramboll’s approach. The firm is almost completely privately owned, except for the shares held by employees, enabling an easing of pressure to generate quarterly earnings to the exclusion of other concerns. As well, Scandinavians are particularly driven by progresses towards environmental and social sustainability. “Look at Greta: we are very proud of her,” Louise noted. She added that the last couple of years has seen a major shift in Sweden, with business elites putting these challenges at the top of the agenda. Greta and other movements have moved B2B and B2C to highlight B2A, ie Business to Activists. We all need to answer up to their concern, anger. Through social media, these issues/concerns spread very fast and often rightly so they should. They often reflect some kind of injustice, that we do not want to recognise.

Appoint a board sustainability head
“I think that all boards should have a person specifically responsible for sustainability related issues,” Louise said. Otherwise too often the buck is passed, or thoughts that these topics will be backstopped by the chair. “But that just doesn’t happen,” Louise remarked, not least because these are often complicated ideas that are quite different from traditional business ways of thinking. 

She recognises that it can be difficult to take decisions, but also believes that boards and directors have to take responsibility to educate themselves about the challenges and opportunities. This requires private study, education sessions organised by the company, and group discussions which might be led by an external specialist. 

Overall she is gratified about the swift pace of change taking place. “I've been working with this for 20 years, and I must admit I didn’t think it would take off, and I had grown somewhat cynical, but it's really happening,” she said. 
But the main 2 questions to ask yourself right now are:  Firstly, is it happening fast enough? This is the decade of action. Secondly are we doing enough in relation to our size and power?