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It all starts with the (wo)man in the mirror

MarleenJGMeet Marleen Janssen Groesbeek, Professor Sustainable Finance and Accounting at Avans University of Applied Sciences. She also is a member of the Sustainable Finance Lab and writes columns for CSR magazine P+. I really enjoyed her inaugural lecture at Avans University and followed up with an interview. On both occasions, she shared her views on how people can take much more responsibility and action for their own sustainable future. Here’s what she said about sustainability, the financial sector and people like you and me.

Anarchy for sustainability

I have two visions of the future. If we remain passive, a gloomy scenario prevails, in which we’re all waiting for someone else to do something. In the other scenario, we all contribute actively to a sustainable future –in big and small ways. We’re eating and shopping differently; and we’re each making demands on our banks and pension funds. We’re all anarchists commanding change to a more sustainable future. I am hopeful that we’ll end up in that state of anarchy for sustainability. Dutch sustainability platform Urgenda won the climate case against the Dutch government demanding better climate policy and CO2 reduction; Sustainable Investment Forums (like VBDO) enable private and institutional investors to take charge, and the mindset of many corporate leaders is right to finally set up an effective carbon tax program at the climate conference in Paris.

Never waste a good crisis

A time of crisis is the best moment to start doing things differently. To drive change, we need new language and a new perception of reality. The language of sustainability needs to change; it needs to start framing issues in terms of health and economic welfare. And to change the perception of sustainability being expensive, we need to shift to longer-term thinking. Just because we’re not all aware of the costs of our current economic model, it doesn’t mean humanity will not have to pay for it in the future. The longer we wait to fix the real issues like climate change and clean water, the more it will cost. If we fail to take the real long-term risks and returns into account when making investment decisions, we’re short-changing our future. Investing in sustainable solutions will not only yield solid return for the investors; it will also decrease the cost of living in the future.

A serial sense of wonder

My personal interest in a sustainable economy goes back to my high school days. The variable interest rate of my parents’ mortgage had such a profound impact on our family that I wanted to know more about economics. Words like price elasticity and utility maximization and the assumed rational minds of people puzzled me, and in the end led me to choose economics as my major at university. Even in the early ‘80’s, topics like gender equality, taxation of labor and the balance between the different kinds of capital captured my attention and led me to develop events for fellow students. After obtaining my masters degree, I joined the Dutch equivalent of the Financial Times as a journalist. My area of focus was economics, but already in the early ‘90’s, I started to write about sustainability. I guess I have always had a strong drive to make people think by sharing my knowledge, insights and ideas. And to get people to act by connecting them to information and to each other. Wouldn’t it be great if we would not shy away from financial decisions? Yes, it might be a bit daunting to think about the impact of the financial sector, but that’s no excuse for spending less time on choosing your next bank than on choosing your next phone.

Shaking up the establishment in boardrooms

I am inspired by CEOs like Paul Polman (Unilever), Feike Sibesma (DSM), Peter Blom (Triodos) and Jeroen Jansen (ASN Bank). They are able to stick to their sustainable mission, despite resistance inside and outside of their companies. I hope people like them will also take that passion into the boardrooms at the companies for which they serve on the boards. I fully agree with shareholder activist Robert Monks that boards will remain dysfunctional as long as they continue to consist mostly of white men over 60. Today, a lot of governance discussions about sustainability are focused on the management of financial risks. By making boards more diverse, stakeholder dialogue will improve significantly and there will be more focus on what’s really material to integrate sustainability into strategy.

From enforcement to engagement

While current boards may need a bit of enforcement to change, younger generations are much easier to engage on the topic of sustainability. In my current role as professor of sustainable finance and accounting, I really enjoy working with young people. I hope to engage and inspire them in such a way that their thinking becomes more integrated, taking all capitals into account, not just the financial capital. Social media are a wonderful way to engage people, across generations. One of my favorite teaching tools are animation films. I am a big fan of Alexandre Magnin, whose animations explain and teach sustainability concepts and principles.

 

For more information, read Marleen’s inaugural lecture (in Dutch) or follow Marleen on LinkedIn or on Twitter.

Written by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis)