Sustainability Hub Norway is quite new on the Norwegian sustainability scene. On the 29th of March, at their monthly gathering at Sentralen in Oslo, I was asked to give a talk about my personal “journey” into sustainability. Apparently, my switch from “finance to waste”, as I wrote about in one of my first blog posts, is still not mainstream – and therefore interesting. Preparing for this, it made me reflect on the past four years. I’d like to share these thoughts with you – by sharing my “speaker notes”, below.
A sustainability awakening – the journey – my talk, as it went:
Sustainability is quite new to me, I have to admit. You could say I’ve had an awakening. In a sense, I came from “the other side”. After some months on board Norsk Gjenvinning, a prominent
environmentalist at Bellona told me «there’s hope when people like you are joining the recycling industry fighting for sustainability». That man was Olaf Brastad at Bellona. A great person, with a very different background than myself.
First, I’d like to give you a brief insight into my background:
I grew up in modest conditions on the countryside in Norway. I moved to Manchester, in the UK, to study economics, and thereafter a master degree in business in Holland and France. I’d describe myself as a quite ambitious student. But sustainability never really crossed my mind.
When returning to Norway in 2002, I was very focused on landing a “career job”. I guess I did, at Nordea Markets, on the trading floor, working with business development. I worked with bright and ambitious people in a young and aspiring environment. You may all know it, but I can confirm to you that success here is measured by one metrics, only. Money. Relative poverty is never greater than on a trading floor – jealousy is the most prominent sin. The conceived importance of oneself is way inflated. I was on-board this bandwagon. Money would’ve kept me in the business, but after five years I seeked something more concrete – something firmer to grasp. As I was gradually finding the scope on the trading floor too narrow.
I went on to a start-up in the real estate business. I guess the bricks were firm, but still it was finance. The years at Realkapital, and thereafter RS Platou, that bought our company, were good. But I was getting tired of pleasing the rich, working to make the richest richer.
So, I was contemplating what to do next. There had to be more! I can assure you, waste management, or Norsk Gjenvinning, was not on my radar. Until pitched by a former finance colleague the spring of 2013. I started to research, talk to people, and then interviews. As I gained insight, I was intrigued – and curious. Especially by the obvious large opportunities – as this was a very immature business. And I was “comforted” by the financial ownership of Norsk Gjenvinning (Altor) and management profiles from “my world”. I was indeed inspired by the fact that the business felt meaningful – but sustainability was not a decisive factor.
So I jumped to Norsk Gjenvinning the autumn of 2013, heading business development and innovation.
Then something happened
I soon learned more about resource scarcity – and the potential consequences. I realized that the climate debate didn’t really capture this – it was all about Co2 and renewable versus fossil energy – topics that few people are able to relate to. I gained insight into the vital role of my new industry had in aiding this – and in the middle of the industry was Norsk Gjenvinning – already with its neck out – on a public journey of cleaning up the industry related to compliance. With an extremely bold vision – that waste is the solution to the future resource problem!
I also realized that my industry had communicated this topic – and our role – in an old-fashioned way – with low impact. At the same time, innovation at NG was very much focused around dealing with small entrepreneurs with fancy ideas. Smart, but small impact – not really addressing our vision.
We had to do something! I had to do something!
So we set out a new ambitious strategy for sustainability at Norsk Gjenvinning, backed by top management and the board. We had to communicate differently – boldly – to attract new partners. First, to inform about resource scarcity and our role – in a world that needs to go from a linear to a circular economy. Looking back at this, I call this period (+/- 2015) for the preaching phase.
We called it “taking the position”. Becoming the leader within circular economy in Norway. I went to conferences, participated in debates; I started to blog, tweet, Instagram, and so on – solely on and around the extended topic of waste. It was narrow. It still is.
Our aim was to become the preferred partner:
- For large industrial customers – developing circular innovation and value chains in cooperation with them
- For politicians and policy makers – setting the direction through ambitious goals and making sure competition is fair and at equal terms
- For academia, NGOs, etc – increasing awareness & having “partners in crime”
- For young ambitious professionals, like Eivind, Andrea, Christine and Erik!
Our message was so under communicated – and the feedback was so instant, so positive, as we started to do things differently. This gave a lot of energy – the ball started rolling. The more the merrier. It was – and still is – extremely inspiring to work with such an important topic – also being able to influence the direction.
Looking back, I would say that we reached the targets we aimed for. From a Norsk Gjenvinning perspective, we have succeeded with bold innovation projects. We have become a leader within circular economy in Norway.
Personally, I have really found out what drives me! For example, – when approached by job opportunities that are not within the sustainability sphere – it is very satisfying to say; “no thanks – you may come back if you have something more sustainable to offer” It feels good. And more importantly, – it feels right.
This was basically my journey from finans til søppel, from finance to waste. I learned about sustainability on the road. Gained insight on the road. Were inspired as I went along. And most importantly, I met a lot of inspiring people. Dedicated people, using their time on the important stuff. You guys make me optimistic.
So what are the key lessons learned from my journey?
- Sustainability – and circular economy in particular – is very much about business – done right its good for both business, the environment and society – true shared value. Or as Richard Branson says it “doing good is good for business”.
- Impact & volumes are key. It is vital to prioritize based on impact – not by symbolic value or feel-good factors. In order to make real difference. In sustainability terms.
- Every “sustainability” project needs to be profitable – it needs to be better than status quo. If it is “only” environmentally sound, or “only” socially sound, but not profitable, what have we proven then? In a sense Norsk Gjenvinning may also be seen as a “sustainability project” – if we aren’t able to run the company profitably as we develop all these new circular sustainable projects – what have we proven then?
- There is an extreme potential in contributing with solutions to the SDGs. We have the knowledge, we have the goals. What we need to do now is to move forward by developing concrete solutions. Business is vital in obtaining this.
In a Norsk Gjenvinning perspective, this means filling our vision with concrete sustainable cases. Doing that will be the continuation of my sustainability journey.