A student summary of a SMART conference

Eric Alborg, a student at the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business, sums up his takeaways from the 21-22 March SMART conference. 

Eric gave this speech at the end of the conference to sum up the main lessons learned after two intensive days of talks and discussions:  

Recently, the UC Berkeley, Haas School of Business, was the setting for a one of a kind conference, aimed at discussing a theme common between a far-away Nordic region and California – sustainability.

From my perspective, as a Haas student, many lessons were learned. 

We were led through the myriad of presentations by both Robert Strand, who heads the UC Berkeley Center for Responsible Business, and Beate Sjåfjell, Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Robert Strand greeted us warmly, but quickly did away with pleasantries and got to the business at hand: “Why are we here?”, he asked.

“We are here to learn something about leadership,” he said, “to understand something about what the Nordics have to offer; something that California has to offer.”

He also seeded a challenge. He encouraged us to leave behind zero-sum thinking, in order to start thinking in win-win terms.

David Vogel, UC Berkeley Haas Professor, then told the story of California.

“California has been a leader,” he said, “But there are limits to what businesses can do on their own.”

His insight reminded us of the importance of smart policies. Or as he himself put it, “business’ interest to protect the environment could not happen without government policy.”

We learned an important lesson here: smart policies can help pave the way toward a more sustainable future.

This teased out a theme we would hear much more about later. Namely, the way cooperation motivates a win-win strategy.

Beate then encouraged us to think about “corporate sustainability” in a far more precise way.

She went beyond asking the general “what is corporate sustainability?” question, to asking “how can we better understand corporate sustainability?”

She introduced us to a framework that can actually be applied to both business and academic applications, where both can measure their impacts through multiple dimensions.

She turned our attention to planetary boundaries. This complex framework helps us delve into the different categories we must turn our attention to if we are to seriously think about sustainability.

And she reminded us that we have yet to get our arms around some of the biggest pieces of the puzzle. That we should remember, the equation for corporate sustainability does not reduce to simply climate change. There is so much more.

Eric Alborg sums up the main lessons learned at Corporate Sustainability Leadership? The Nordics and Califoria, 21-22 March 2019. Photo: Iselin Rønningsbakk/Cicero

We must think in terms of our biosphere, our society and our economy, and determine what partnerships are necessary to get us there.

This last part is another lesson, and why we all have spent the past day and a half together here. Partnerships, and more specifically, how to reinforce and make stronger the partnerships between the Nordics and California.

After our both inspirational and slightly depressing start, we got down to business. And we heard from business.

Titus Fossgard-Moser from Equinor helped us see how multinationals pay attention to sustainability issues, with a risk integration approach.

He also provided us insight as to how to weave together top-level management and technically trained employees, into an environment where risk can be incorporated into projects, and communicated between silos and across matrixed organizations.

Easier said than done.

Luisa Book from H&M then told us that the fashion industry was not sustainable!

But she didn’t end there:

H&M dares to take responsibility for where its successes and failures  are, and address them.

Yue Ang from Oxford Brookes University helped us understand the cycle of trash and how to pay better attention to its impacts.

Lawrence Wainwright, PhD candidate from UC Berkeley, we found out, knows a lot about shrimp. But, more importantly, he showed us how to take a product, such as shrimp, demonstrate how issues of power dynamics impact everything from how to identify what shrimp to catch, what number of shrimp to catch, where to catch, or how we define sustainability – even for just one product – is a vastly complex process.

Jukka Mähönen from University of Oslo did a red-teaming exercise. For those of you who have not served in the US military, “red teaming” simply means having all of the same information as the other side, but playing the enemy.

In short, Jukka helped us test and think harder about sustainability and governance, and understand the tension between the owner’s interests and the broader responsibilities that the owner might have.

Hannah Ahlstrom, also from University of Oslo, highlighted the problem of corporate ecological disconnect, and explained how multi-actor collaboration will tackle real world problems. 

Then Juho Saloranta, from University of Eastern Finland reviewed several legal sustainability standards, but cautioned that preventative measures are key, along with maybe a twist of a reverse burden of proof.

Mark Taylor from University of Oslo provided an insightful vision of the laws that may help or harm sustainability, where we learned that litigating sustainability issues are tricky.

And after our legal primer on sustainability, Josef Nystrom Baksaas from Houdini Sportswear opened the proverbial “sustainability kimono,” or as I would like to call it: the multi-fiber compostable jacket that you might be able to eat – to give us a vision of what sustainable clothes might be.

Josef’s daughter and my own two-year old son will likely be around to greet the next century. This point was not lost upon me.

And we learned another lesson here: The long-term view is not theoretical. We are nurturing it every day, quite literally.

Then, Vincent Stanley from Patagonia inspired us, and reminded us that “the most important right we have is the right to be responsible.”

While Vincent does not walk on water, turning long-root wheatgrass into beer (and maybe cereal) is pretty close and pretty cool.

Steen Thomsen from Copenhagen Business School then gave us a crash course on foundation owned companies, using as an example Ikea and its masterful long-term plan, which allowed it to make several sacrifices to achieve a long-term, independent and decentralized company.

All this motivated the debate Robert Strand challenged us to. How should we change laws to allow for foundation-owned-like companies?

It was a long and fruitful day.

To start us out on day two, Susanne Stormer from Novo Nordisk shared how they assess sustainability health with a 23-indicator future fit benchmark.

Beate then presented her work, questioning shareholder value and shareholder primacy, explaining that they both might not be what we think they are.

Dominika Wiesner from University of British Columbia helped us to get past, and all out, green washing for what it is, while surveying how whistleblowers can be an important oversight measure.

Monica Mee of Norsif reminded us that each decision we make today will have impacts for the next several years.

While Amelia Miazad from UC Berkeley Law, walked us through the chronological history from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to sustainability, helping to explain how the risk related to sustainability is better defined today, and can be a more effective form of compliance.

Georgina Tsagas of University of Bristol presented a nuanced view of the private and public sustainability measures, both here and in the Nordics, reminding us that our win-win framework can work.

Lawrence and Robert then brought us back to Robert’s original focus – why are we here? – presenting the evidence of how we might be able to continue to gel both corporate and academic ties between the US and the Nordics.

Of course, we all learned far more than the lessons or brief summaries I shared here. But as life-long students, we all must remember to hold the lessons we learn close so that we can leave here today and apply those to the future work that awaits us.

Beate Sjåfjell, Robert Strand and Eric Alborg rounding off an inspiring conference. Photo: Iselin Rønningsbakk/Cicero


By Eric Alborg
Published Apr. 10, 2019 9:10 AM - Last modified Apr. 10, 2019 9:10 AM
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