“We need the courage to let go of our past” … “business really can change our world” … the European Business Forum 2021

November 16, 2021

Business for a Better World.

That was the theme of this year’s European Business Forum, which I was delighted to host once again, and took the form of a hybrid event with live studio audience, plus a much larger remote audience joining online.

And it was fabulous to bring together the world’s #1 and #2 “most sustainable companies” according to the annual ranking by Canadian analysts Corporate Knights.

In 2020, Danish energy company Ørsted was ranked as the global sustainability leader, recognising it’s 10 year transition from a state-owned, coal-fired utility into a publicly-listed, clean energy leader in wind power. It’s an amazing journey, including an IPO, many acquisitions, and significant growth across the world. Not just a “good” story, but a fantastic growth story too. Ørsted’s CCO Martin Neubert joined us to share the transformational journey “from black to green”.

This year, in 2021, Schneider Electric is #1. The French company defines its purpose as to “empower all to make the most of our energy and resources, bridging progress and sustainability for all”. They call this “Life Is On”. Behind their why is the how – providing energy and automation digital solutions for efficiency and sustainability. And the what – addressing homes, buildings, data centers, infrastructure and industries, by combining energy technologies, real-time automation, software and services. Schneider Electric’s Michael Seremet described the business models that are driving the new global leader.

More generally we explored a wide range of businesses – from start-ups like sustainable fashion entrepreneur Malaika New York, minimising waste by making clothes in squares – to corporates in search of reinvention, like Philip Morris who are ready to kill off Marlboro Man in search of a smoke-free future. While environmental issues dominate, particularly inspired by COP26 in Glasgow taking place at the same time, they are matched by many broader social issues – like social inequality, accessible healthcare, and diversity and inclusion.

From these stories emerged a common theme. Not just about CSR and ESG, which are old words, and largely peripheral approaches, but about making sustainability a core business driver – how companies can grow better by being good – the shift from compliance to innovation, from reducing negatives to enhancing positives – and can ultimately engage consumers and amplify their positive impacts by becoming platforms for change. But this all starts with leadership – with leaders who have the courage to let go of the past, to create a better future.

You can also download my Business for a Better World: Leadership Playbook which I uniquely created for the event in partnership with a wide range of global thought leaders.

Here are some of the best moments …

Diane Holdorf, MD of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development:

“Business is our best opportunity to address the huge challenges of climate change, and more. Through better focused investment and innovation, business can create a more positive impact, and a better world.”

Lotte Hansen, CEO of HE Agenda, the sustainability think tank:

“The pressure on business to change is overwhelming – from customers who want to make better choices, from investors who see better options, and most importantly from GenZ, your future talent.”

Martin Neubert, CCO of Orsted, the world’s leading wind energy business:

“We need to transform our thinking from reducing negative impact, to adding more positive impact. Sustainability is now at the core of business, of strategic growth, of innovation.”

Malaika Haaning, founder of Malaika NY, sustainable fashion designer:

“In my small way, I am making a difference. We make fashion with zero waste. Actually, it becomes distinctive, making clothes without any cutting of fabrics. But we can do so much more. We need to change our entire industry.”

Tine Arentsen Willumsen, CEO of Above & Beyond, on diversity and inclusion:

“Diversity is a huge business opportunity – not simply to meet quotas of male and female, black and white – but to create organisations with diverse teams and perspectives – more curious, more capable, more creative.”

Mic Seremet, Head of Strategy for Schneider Electric, the world’s most sustainable company:

“The real opportunity is to reimagine business models. In the energy sector these are increasingly built around prosumers and microgrids, enabling people to consume and generate clean energy together”

Camilla Sylvest, Senior VP, Novo Nordisk, the world’s leading healthcare business for diabetes:

“We see a purpose-driven shift in how we do business. In particular to more services, where we can support people far beyond our products – educating, caring, connecting”

Mark Esposito, AI-based technologist, co-founder of Nexus Frontier Tech:

“AI is the most exciting of all the new technologies. People just haven’t yet got their heads around how AI can transform our understanding of weather, and ultimately address climate change” 

Anette Rosengren, CEO Nordics, Philip Morris International, on the end of smoking:

“We are ready to kill the Marlboro Man. He defined our business, he was our cash cow, but now the world is changing fast. We need the courage to let go of our past”

Hans Axel Kristensen, founder and CEO of Plastix, a leading circular recycling business:

“Recycling used to be a dirty industry, now it is about data analytics and science. We all need to embrace circular design – rethinking how we source, produce, consume, and dispose of everything.”

Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, project director at GSK, global champion of project management:

“We need leaders who can create tomorrow. Chief Transformation Officers … Today everyone is a project manager. Say goodbye to functional roles, job descriptions. Even the COO can be automated”

More from the blog