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Engaging Leaders to Align Business and Sustainability

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The Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society

Engaging Leaders to Align Business and Sustainability

Engaging Leaders to Align Business and Sustainability

"Sustainability can be sustainable only if it makes economic sense" - Antoine de Saint Affrique, CEO Danone & Former CEO Barry Callebaut

When INSEAD Professor Karel Cool speaks with business leaders and executive education participants, he sees a strong willingness from companies and individuals to transform business to protect people and the planet. Frameworks and inspiring examples of success can guide the business community toward these sustainable business models and practices. To show the sustainability strategies that exist and how they can be practically applied, professors Karel Cool and Atalay Atasu designed a learning and discovery journey to engage leaders on business sustainability. 

From April to October 2023, INSEAD Lifelong Learning hosted the Business Sustainability Series to share the opportunities that arise from transitioning business models to sustainability across a large range of industries and regions. The Series consisted of four webinars:

  1. The series kicked off with a Masterclass outlining a framework for how to integrate sustainability needs and opportunities into strategic decision making and two ‘Mastercases’ showcasing alumni action on business sustainability. 

  2. The second webinar explored regional trends in sustainability to understand their impact on society and business, and opportunities that can open.
  3. The third webinar zoomed in on one company, EcoVadis, and featured a clinic on creating and scaling a sustainability inspired business.
  4. The fourth webinar took a deeper dive into innovation in business sustainability and showcased four innovative projects at different stages of development. 

The series wrapped up in early November with a ceremony to announce the winners of the first INSEAD Business Sustainability Awards. The Awards recognize alumni who are leading in the sustainability space. An overview of the Business Sustainability Series and Awards can shine a light on the learning opportunity and leading alumni. 

  1. Sustainability as a Strategic Opportunity – Masterclass – 26 April 2023, Presented by Karel Cool

Reducing environmental impact offers organizations an opportunity to transform business models and practices to reach a “Triple Win” situation – sound profits, meeting customer needs, and protecting people and planet. Mere compliance with environmental regulations opens companies to risks such as increased costs and lower competitiveness. Companies that adopt a strategic approach to sustainability can deeply change their business models and tap into new profit opportunities from increased demand, increased willingness to pay, and cost savings. This can be seen in the two alumni Mastercases explored in the webinar.

Organising Committee for the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games – As Director of Environmental Excellence, Georgina Grenon MBA'99J, is making one of the largest events on earth more sustainable. From setting objectives and measuring impact to finding new, creative solutions for sourcing, energy, and circular economy, she is creating a handbook for future Olympic Games that can change the event industry forever.

GHGSat – CEO Stephane Germain MBA’94J is tackling global warming head on using data and insights from GHGSat satellites to flag methane leaks. Doing so opens an opportunity to reduce emissions of a gas 25 times more potent than CO2 and gives his clients the chance to reduce waste and increase the volume of methane they sell, often for a fraction of the costs caused by hidden leaks.

2. Sustainability around the World: Trends, Impact, Opportunities – 8 June 2023, Moderated by Katell Le Goulven

In a true INSEAD spirit, we engaged different regions of the world on their approach to sustainability and alignment of economic priorities and environmental stewardship. Five panellists shared opportunities in their region for action on climate change and biodiversity, and the role that regulation and innovation play in this context.

Jared Koh, Regional Director Americas at the Singapore Economic Development Board, spoke about how Singapore, a small country, can’t change the trend on climate with better practices. However, it can foster planetary protection and economic prosperity by supporting R&D and innovation, transforming the oil industry, and shaping carbon markets.

Eunice Sampson, Director for Climate Change and Sustainability at EY, described how Africa has the opportunity to leapfrog old models and achieve triple impact in many sectors. Innovations and investments in agriculture, construction, transportation and renewable energy can close the gap of basic economic needs of a growing population, provide substantive return on investment, and safeguard the natural environment.

Aron Cramer, President and CEO at BSR, highlighted the need for the United States to focus on infrastructure, especially in the field of clean renewable energy. He also sees opportunities in helping company leadership better understand and act on sustainability.

Elisa Dierickx MBA’21J, Associate at Systemic and Founder and Board Member at Fundação Maio Biodiversidade, brought the biodiversity lens to the discussion. While biodiversity challenges have a very local scope, they are intrinsically linked to global planetary health. She sees opportunity in improving spatial data and land use planning to increase understanding and protection of local ecosystems.

Patricia Ellen da Silva MBA’05J, Brazil Partner at Systemiq, discussed the crucial role of agricultural practices, use of land, and forest regeneration for sustainable development in her region. She sees an opportunity for the financial sector to invest more in sustainable projects, especially with more knowledge.

3. Building a Sustainability-Inspired Digital Business: the Case of Ecovadis – 28 September 2023, Moderated by Karel Cool and Atalay Atasu

In this third webinar, Pierre-François Thaler MBA’99D and Frédéric Trinel, co-founders and co-CEOs, shared the EcoVadis story of creating a universal business sustainability score to help both buyers and suppliers increase transparency and information sharing, leading to substantial improvement of supply chains. This earned EcoVadis unicorn status in June 2022, when the company impacted a spend of USD $2.5 trillion globally.

The success of EcoVadis was largely driven by a few strategic choices. 

  • First, the company had the ambition from the outset to operate and serve clients globally, reflecting the global nature of supply chains and large corporations. 

  • Second, the company invested heavily in scaling the platform and quality of the rating through technology and AI to increase reliability of the metrics and provide information in real time. This choice meant refusing early-stage revenue opportunities like customization and consulting. 

  • Finally, EcoVadis designed a financing strategy around early profitability, even though the market for sustainability was less developed than it is today.

Looking ahead, EcoVadis faces intense competition and a proliferation of regulations. Pierre-François and Frédéric see their competitive advantage in the quality and recognition of the EcoVadis standard. They also maintain a network that reaches beyond the largest public companies in the world and includes thousands of small private businesses looking for sustainability services. Increasing regulations may see a stream of companies joining the network to comply with new rules, and over time potentially move from simple compliance to competitive advantage.

4. Product Innovation and Development for Sustainable Business – 26 October 2023, Moderated by Karel Cool 

In this webinar, Karel hosted four companies to illustrate diverse opportunities that sustainability represents for the business world. Each example looked at how sustainability translates into higher willingness to pay by customers. 

Paul Manwell MBA’04D, Founder at TC Labs and “ex-Googler”, applies the whole range of data and AI technologies to help old manufacturing plants identify and reduce waste. This strategy of reducing both costs and carbon emissions must be paired with a deep knowledge of customer workflows and data sources to be a viable service.

Vidya Sarma MBA’09J, Product Manager at Meta, shared the company’s focus on social responsibility and advocacy for new products that help people adapt to a changing climate. These products cover safety checks for crises and natural disasters, educating on the validity climate information, and ways for sustainable brands to better connect with audiences on Meta’s platforms.

Arnold van den Berg, Market Development Manager, Specialty Plastics Division at Eastman, describes how the company has innovated a molecular recycling process for plastics. This process ensures a 100% quality to the original plastic with infinite recycling. The current challenge lies in scaling up the process, which requires Eastman to help clients that produce plastic consumer goods better communicate the qualities, impact and sustainability of this kind of plastic to consumers.

Nanna Aage Lundsgaard, Head of Hydronics RD&E at Danfoss Climate Solutions, has pioneered a brand-new vertical in fish farming on land for Danfoss, a Danish producer of industrial equipment. Danfoss leveraged its thermodynamics expertise and capabilities to create a system where fish grow in a temperature-controlled environment, using less energy and ensuring higher water quality. This model can reduce the carbon footprint of transporting fish from farm to table and increase food security, but it requires change across the full value chain and engagement with diverse stakeholders. 

Business Sustainability Awards

On 10 November, the Series came to a close with the announcement of the nominees and winners of the first INSEAD Business Sustainability Awards. Winners include some familiar faces from the webinar series:

  • Stephane Germain, MBA’94J, Founder and CEO at GHGSat

  • Pierre-François Thaler, MBA’99D, Co-Founder and Co-CEO art EcoVadis

  • Julia Streuli, Sara Guaglio, and Cristina Prat, MBA’19D, Co-Founders at FUL

  • John Redfern, MBA’88D, President and CEO at Eavor

The award ceremony was held during the Americas Conference at the San Francisco Hub, put together by Hub Director Vic Woo, former Hub Director Isabelle Finger and alumnus Kathleen Kuo MBA’13D. The conference gathered more than 200 alumni, an ideal setting to connect with business leaders and share examples to inspire even more business sustainability action. Stay tuned for the main key takeaways from the Americas Conference. 

The Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society would like to thank INSEAD Lifelong Learning, Professor Karel Cool and Professor Atalay Atasu for their work on the Business Sustainability Series. We also thank the San Francisco Hub for Business Innovation for hosting the Business Sustainability Awards and look forward to engaging with business leaders moving forward. Special thanks to Isabelle Finger for drafting this story.

INSEAD is currently preparing the 2024 edition of the Business & Sustainability webinar series. Topics will include sustainability and AI, sustainability and leadership, and sustainability and Finance. More info coming soon on the Series webpage.

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