Almedalen: sustainability, research and politics

Last week I attended Swedish politics week, Almedalen, for the very first time. The occasion was a seminar about sustainability professionals in companies, their work and competences that my employer, Örebro University School of Business, hosted. We are starting a new master profile in sustainable business this autumn and have thus thought a lot about what knowledge and competences sustainability professionals need. So I represented our school and shared our experiences. When developing this master profile, we have been supported by representatives from businesses and student organizations, some of which- Nordea, Grant Thornton, Spendrups,  SEK, Telenor, Young Sustainability Professionals and Sustainergies– joined us for the seminar in Almedalen (which was recorded and can be found here).

Already there, I had the opportunity to attend over 4000 seminars arranged during the week. There was no way to attend all of them, sadly since a large proportion dealt with sustainability issues. However, I managed to attend some seminars on sustainability and some others on research politics.

The panels discussing sustainability and consumption were very gloomy. ‘Consumption has to decrease’ and is ‘destroying our environment’ and ‘the politicians are not doing enough’ seemed to be the general message. I have some major issues with these kinds of statements. First, one has to define what is meant with consumption. Services such as child care and going to the hairdresser are also consumption. We can consume second hand items and probably should increase this type of consumption. Basically, we have to differentiate between different types of consumption and their effects on the environment. Instead KTH researchers from Mistra’s project on sustainable consumption painted with very large brushes and suggested we should both consume and work less. I don’t see how they arrived at this conclusion and am consequently not convinced. Neither are my consumption researcher colleagues when I’ve discussed the issue with them. Consumption per se is not evil, but certain types, such as flying or single use plastics, are bad for the environment.

One take away from Almedalen is thus that it was engineering researchers that discussed economics and business issues such as GDP, growth and consumption. One panel even stated that ‘it is probably just as good that there are no economists on the panel’. I, however, was missing the economics and business researchers and I believe that our presence on the panels would have improved the discussions. Instead, I was sitting in the audience wondering how they defined growth and how they could state that Sweden has substantial GDP growth (clearly they did not consider GDP per capita). Of course research is interdisciplinary, but when it comes to basic definitions in business and economics, researchers in these fields have an advantage: we have worked longer with these concepts.

Attending the social events, generally organized by companies, was a more encouraging experience. I ended up having drinks with the electric cars lobby (who knew they existed?) and attending Atea’s afternoon around the topic of sustainable supply chains in the IT sector and conflict minerals. It’s really encouraging that so much is happening on both these issues. Our partner for the master program, Spendrups, invited us to an entirely organic dinner celebrating that they are now the world’s largest producer of organic beer. My take away from the company discussions is that a lot can happen in a short period of time in the corporate world. And as soon as there is something that looks like a business case for addressing a sustainability issue, companies will race their competitors to get there.

The research politics seminars were also a positive surprise and dealt with topics such as research communication and open science. As for the latter, the panel agreed that professional research communicators are needed and that we today lack incentives for researchers to address the general public. If we want to communicate outside of academia, we have to do it in our spare time. As for the latter topic, it seems as if open science is coming our way and it’s just a matter of time and of exactly how the solutions will look like. The Swedish Research Council (‘Vetenskapsrådet’) is arranging a conference in November about open science which I will try to attend.

Overall, Almedalen was a highly inspiring week that was well worth attending even for a researcher (there were very few of us there) and I hope there will be opportunity to be back next year!

When stakeholders oppose the company’s plans: the case of Schiphol airport

A key part of companies’ sustainability work is to communicate with parties that are affected by the company’s operations. This is generally called ‘stakeholder dialogue’ (see Edward Freeman’s definition from 1984).

Engaging local communities, environmental groups, customers and investors early on may prevent critic, and even boycott, of the business later on, when it might be too late to turn back. It can also provide valuable input and reveal opportunities. However, these different groups can, and most likely will, also have conflicting ideas and needs. So what can the company do when the stakeholders’ demands conflict with the corporate plans as well as with other stakeholders’ needs?

A NHH and CEMS student of mine, Elizaveta Sokolova, wrote her master thesis on precisely this issue. She used the case of the Dutch airport Schiphol and their stakeholders (local residents, regional authorities, the Dutch state, airlines, Friends of the Earth and more) to investigate how the airport handles the conflicting demands. The conflicts concerned for example birds that get in harms way around the airport, access to the airport and noise from the airport. Elizaveta found that even when the stakeholders do not disagree on the final goal, they can disagree on how to achieve the goals.

In Schiphol’s case, the stakeholder dialogue revealed the complexity of the issues. It also created a feeling among stakeholders that the problem is shared and only coordinated efforts can bring a solution. However, when the conflicts were too divisive, the airport decided to end, or at least limit, the dialogue. To read the full thesis, you find it here.

I asked Elizaveta, who also participated in the ‘Measuring sustainability’ course I teach at NHH, a few questions for the purpose of this blog:

You seem to have a keen interest in business and sustainability. What interests you most in this area? 

On the first glance, it seems that sustainability stop business from faster expansion and revenue growth. However, being more conscious of the impact that a business creates on people and environment allows to make the growth more sustainable, less dependent on external factors such as new policies or fuel/electricity/commodity prices. Finding examples of how this idea works in real life is what attracts me the most.

What is the main point we as readers can learn from your thesis?

The Schiphol airport example that I describe in my thesis shows that changing business towards sustainability and including diverse stakeholders for consultations is never easy: opinions vary. However, this approach leads to well-rounded final decision.

Writing the thesis, what was the main learning point for you personally?

For me personally, it was difficult to understand how to find a common ground on an issue when stakeholders’ opinions are literally opposite. The answer is: willingness to compromise and understand the opponent’s concerns.

Now that you have finished your master here at NHH, what are your plans for the future?

Now, when I have finished NHH, I am implementing the knowledge I got about stakeholder engagement in practice: I work at The Global Fund and deal with sustainability and transition. It requires a lot of negotiations and communications with different stakeholders, so the communication experience and theoretical background I got while working on the thesis is very beneficial.

Thank you Elizaveta for sharing your insights and good luck with your new job!