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4 ingredients for business as a force for good

“Degrowth is not the solution I see for a more sustainable future. Instead, I really see the companies of the future as a force for good. Companies exist to create value. Unfortunately, in many cases, this is focused on just one kind of value-creation: financial value for shareholders. This might still be viable in the short term, but for a license to operate in the future, the narrow definition of value needs to be redefined to include the well-being of people and nature. That way, growth has a much broader scope. And with that, the opportunity to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals, or if you will, a better world.”

Meet Wineke Haagsma, Chief Sustainability Officer and partner at PwC. Her role and responsibilities on corporate sustainability have grown organically since joining the company in 2008. In July 2022, she became the first partner in the global PwC network who focuses on corporate sustainability. “I see my promotion to partner as a clear signal that PwC Netherlands is very serious about sustainability. Sustainability is at the heart of our strategy, both for our own organization as well as our service offerings.“

According to Wineke, transforming a business to be such a force for good requires four things: strategy, structure, culture, and reporting.

Strategy as a force for good

“I see sustainability strategies in many companies, but many of them as a separate theme in the strategy, not as an integral part of their value creation process. Your value as a firm starts and ends with value for all stakeholders, your impact on the Sustainable Development Goals. Your company’s strategy should reflect this. And beyond this strategy, you need a clear plan to bring the strategy to life. Taking it from strategy to execution. That is where the magic happens. Very often strategies fall short due to a lack of clear implementation of plans and goals. In some others, the goals are not specific enough to drive change. For example, how do you define a diverse board? Does that only relate to gender? What percentage is good enough? And these goals should be accompanied by some very concrete (smaller) next steps for the short term.

Structuring a force for good

“To really deliver on the sustainability strategy, companies need a structure that supports it. The entire organization should work on reaching the sustainability goals, not just the sustainability team, which was often the case in the past. That also changes the role of sustainability professionals, from executing the strategy to supporting colleagues throughout the company. The accountability widely in the firm on sustainability matters is crucial. And bringing the outside in and connecting new trends and topics to the company’s purpose, strategy, and people. I can already sense our role is changing. Before, we had to ‘push’ ourselves into the conversation, now we’re getting ‘pulled’ into many client meetings.

We are also working in a multidisciplinary team to extend our services on sustainability. For example, to support our clients, we are currently developing new impact measurement tools.”

Culture to drive change

“Beyond strategy and structure, sustainable business will also require a change in culture. People throughout the company need new skills to create value for multiple stakeholders, beyond the shareholders. For example, by working in a different, more long-term co-creative way with suppliers. However, driving behavior change is very challenging. I believe a very effective way to influence the behavior of people is to connect with them on an emotional level. In 2019, we built the SDG dome to engage both our staff and our clients with the SDGs and our own sustainability strategy. This was a VR immersive experience to show and challenge people around the Sustainable Development Goals. Even now, people still talk about this multi-media project which eventually traveled around the world.

And you need the company’s leadership on board – to walk the talk every step of the way. To continually reinforce the goals and the new behaviors expected from all staff. I love how our new chair shows her vision on sustainability even in smaller things like driving an all-electric car. And how she connects her appreciation for nature to PwC’s sustainability strategy in one of her posts on LinkedIn.”

Reporting for positive change

“To track progress, reporting also plays an important role. And I’m not just saying this from an accountancy firm perspective, as this goes beyond an annual external reporting cycle. For example, to reach our CO2 reduction goals, we share the CO2 footprint with our employees on a monthly basis. Not just at an individual or company level; we now also share insights at the project and client levels. This makes people more conscious of the impact of their project-related mobility. Which will hopefully make people think twice about the next flight or car trip. And leads to conversations with clients about how we work together in the most sustainable way.

And yes, as accountants, we do have a role to play in driving change through reporting. We have a unique opportunity – and with that, an important responsibility – to signal and explain key trends to the companies we serve, at the boardroom level. One of the topics that is top of mind in many corporate boardrooms and sustainability teams is the upcoming EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, which will require more companies to report on their sustainability strategy and performance. And of course, we need to practice what we preach – so I am pushing for our own reporting to be CSRD-compliant far ahead of the 2026 deadline that applies to companies our size.

Wineke was recently nominated for the Dutch CSR Manager of the year, for the third time in a row! To find out more about Wineke and her work at PwC and beyond, follow her on LinkedIn. Interview by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis) for Change in Context. To read interviews with other interesting people, book reviews, and other posts about change, leadership and sustainability, please subscribe.