Making Dutch trains ride like the wind

Meet Carola Wijdoogen, Corporate Sustainability Officer of the Dutch Railways. Carola and I met each other decades ago when studying business at Nyenrode University. Little did we know that we’d end up working in the field of corporate sustainability. When Carola recently published a book to share her experience and tips with other CSR managers, it was time to interview her for my blog. I took the train to Utrecht to hear her thoughts on wind-powered trains, recycling coffee cups and the drivers of change.


A truly circular and inclusive society

“My vision of a sustainable future is a truly circular and inclusive society. As humanity, we only have one planet. That’s why we need to respect it and leave it behind in a better state for our children and future generations. We need to progress quickly to a climate-positive society, to offset the damage of the past decades. To progress to an economy based on circular business models. At the same time, we need to make society much more inclusive, with respect for differences and dialogue to jointly resolve problems.


My model of – big and small – change is to define a spot on the horizon, a shared direction where we want to go. And then to backcast from there. Where are we now? And what measures do we need to get to where we want to go? Some of these are “stronger”, more structural instruments for change, such as legislation, infrastructure, and financial incentives. Others are “softer”, more cultural instruments, such as communications, tone at the top, and inspiration. People need both types of measures to support behavior change. To make it happen, it’s always up to people to drive and live the change. Yet that’s easier said than done as this often requires tapping into unconscious drivers of our behavior.


CSR managers not redundant any time soon

When I took on the role of Corporate Sustainability Officer, everyone told me that my primary goal would be to make my role redundant. By making everyone in the company embed sustainability into their role. But five years on, I believe this role isn’t going to be redundant any time soon. There’s a world to be won out there, even with some great systemic progress we’ve made in the past years. Our clients make over a million trips on our trains every day. And every year, over half of the Dutch population uses the train. With so many clients traveling so many kilometers, we have a huge opportunity to drive positive change.


Some of it is systemic, like our recent switch to 100% wind power. This makes the Netherlands the first country in the world with 100% wind-powered electric trains! This required hard work and partnership in the chain, but the travelers don’t have to do anything different. Our next sustainability frontier will be waste management. For this, we will need to engage both train travelers to separate their trash, as well as the many partners needed to turn those waste streams into valuable resources. This is tremendously complex, as there are no national standards (yet) for recycling something as ordinary as a paper coffee cup.


Communications to support change

Change, even when people rationally know it is for the better in the long-term, comes with resistance and insecurity. Simply sharing information doesn’t necessarily ignite action and change in people. In order for real change to happen, people first need to become aware, then adopt a new attitude, and finally, adjust their behavior. Unilever’s model, the five levers of change, offers an effective framework for this. Our trains and train stations are great communications vehicles to raise awareness with our clients, the travelers. And seemingly small things on our website, like the CO2 reduction calculator which tells you how much CO2 you’re saving by taking the train instead of a car.


Also in the relationship with other stakeholders, we need both transparency and engagement to be effective. Transparency is a crucial basis to have real conversations with our stakeholders. We can work together better when we’re aware of where the money, the pain, the opportunities are for all involved. Only through dialogue will we ever understand the real underlying drivers and barriers. We don’t have all the answers ourselves, so transparency and engagement enable us to work with very diverse stakeholders to jointly find solutions and progress.


From organizational to societal change

Initially, I focused on the organizational opportunities to become more sustainable, in the years to come, our focus will move towards societal opportunities. The project we’re embarking on now around waste management requires working together in an ecosystem of partners, redefining the way we recycle things like paper cups. We need to work together across the chain, with the end in mind. What waste streams can best be reused? What does that mean for the components of that same coffee cup?


We will also continue to play a role in raising awareness of issues and solutions around mobility, as 20% of CO2 is related to mobility. Joint initiatives like the Low Car Diet help to change awareness, attitudes, and behavior of people. The majority of people who join the low car diet for a month, change their behavior and CO2 footprint for good. And last, but not least, I will continue to work on the measurement of societal impact. I’m excited about the international movement to define the true value of things and the case study we developed with Yale. We all know money talks. Making societal, social and environmental issues and impact more tangible – in a financial sense – will make it much easier to get such topics into the boardroom. To get companies truly committed to contribute to a more sustainable future, that’s where it belongs.”


In 2014, Carola was awarded the title Dutch CSR Manager of the Year. And in both 2015 and 2016, she was one of the top 100 sustainability influencers of the Netherlands. For more information on Carola and the Dutch Railways mission, check out her LinkedIn profile or the Dutch Railway website. Or follow Carola and Dutch Railways’ sustainability on Twitter. A separate blog post provides a summary and review of her book.


Interview by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis) for Change in Context. To read about interesting people, book reviews and other posts about change, communications and sustainability, please subscribe.


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