Honesty, common sense, and continuous growth – pre-interview with Thomas Kolster for the Sustainability for Rookies webinar on Friday 12.5.
The webinar held on Friday 12 May 2023 09:00–11:00, is aimed at all companies and organizations that need encouragement to take the first steps in corporate responsibility. The keynote speaker and encourager of the event is the internationally known Mr. Goodvertising – author, activist Thomas Kolster, who has helped hundreds of companies and brands on their sustainability journey. We decided to call Kolster in advance and asked him to answer a few questions that are surely on the minds of many companies starting or considering the corporate sustainability process. Read Thomas’s thoughts and come to the webinar to hear why you should start to work right away and how to succeed!
Why it is important to start the corporate sustainability process? Is it too late to start it now?
I don’t think it’s ever too late. I spent the first 10 years of my career advertising people things and products they don’t really need before I decided to take change the course. Basically, it’s just common sense. When you start a corporate sustainability process, you have a much better view of the risks and opportunities of your industry, a more engaged workforce, a more secure supply chain – which is even more crucial these days – and a better idea of your material costs as well as your operational impact and efficiency.
What are the most common fears when starting a corporate sustainability process?
It’s like when you’re starting a new relationship or hobby and you ask yourself “Am I good enough for this”. People often get insecure in small and midsized as well as in big organizations and worry if they have the right professional skill set to start the process. I think the key thing is always to be open about it and ask for help, which is very honest, human, and the right thing to do.
What are the first easy steps to overcome the fears and start the journey?
It’s like any other journey. If you want to run a marathon, it’s not a good idea to run the whole 42 kilometers immediately. If you have a goal that you want to reach, it’s good to break that up into separate smaller targets, because very few of us can run 20 kilometers right away tomorrow. But setting intermediate goals, being honest about your development, and pushing yourself every time a little bit further will get you there. It’s also important to be aware of what’s happening around you. If you set a goal to run a marathon but don’t care to be in the top thousand first, that’s fine. But as an organization, you need to know what the competition is like and what people will expect from you.
How can you concretely measure your company’s impact?
Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Investing, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and such regulations are a good lens from which to view your impact and development. But after all, I think it’s all about seeing the essential risks and opportunities that your company is facing.
For small and midsized companies that may don’t have the resources on their own, as well as big corporations, it’s useful to get some professional help starting and during the journey. It’s also good to get together with some key persons across the business and have conversations about these topics, such as the climate impact, diversity, skills, recruitments, and the opportunities and challenges of your business, to see what others are doing, know the competition and to bring up new ideas.
Also, don’t focus just on now, but on 5 and 10 years further. This is why starting a sustainability process generates a lot of added value for companies because you learn to know the requirements of the future and make sustainable development a competitive advantage.
How do you recognize your business’s most important development points and take them forward?
From a communication perspective, when you have an idea of the impact that your company has, it is understanding your stakeholders, knowing what they are expecting from you, and what are their values, needs, and dreams.
From a business sustainability perspective, you should consider what might be an area that you could lead and is closely connected to your business area on the operation and brand wise. Some of the most successful companies that have done this well have been the ones that have had a long-term single-minded focus and have taken brave actions along the way. Businesses like the soap brand Unilever’s Lifebuoy which promotes hand washing across the world, show that having a sustainability mission linked to the product is also good for the business.
In addition to those one or two areas you choose – you should never ignore the others but it’s good to focus on the core – it’s good to think what your sword or shield could be with which you can fight and shape the market with. If you are an IT supplier or you are in the service business or just in B2B in general, there’s a massive pressure on lowering carbon emissions. If you can help your customers lower their carbon footprint, it is an essential commercial benefit for your business now and in the future.
What is greenwashing and how can you avoid it in your own business?
When speaking about greenwashing, whitewashing, or other marketing and PR traps of today, it’s good to remember that these things are not black and white, and they don’t stand still. These topics move ahead all the time and that makes it incredibly difficult to navigate through them. It’s sometimes almost like chasing a rainbow, just as you feel you are there, you’re not and it has moved ahead.
First of all, it’s good to know that you’re never going to arrive, it’s a constant journey. If you look at for example electronic goods, houses, and cars, the regulations and certifications are constantly improving and there is every time a new plus added behind the A plus plus plus plus.
The key thing for me is just taking off that stupid advertising hat and reminding yourself this is not making something classier or more shining. If you use more common sense instead of big words and shiny pictures, you’ll avoid falling into that greenwashing trap. For example, if you are in the food business, and you have a highly industrialized plant and your supply chain is full of monoculture, then it might not be a very good idea to put a very happy cow and corn fields full of flowers and bees in your packaging.
One thing to avoid this is having a conversation with your technical and production professionals and understanding what your operations and products really are before trying to make them shine more. And this is also about comparison again: if you don’t run a marathon in the top ten, don’t pretend to be in the top ten. Most companies are just at the beginning of their sustainability journey, so just be honest about it.
Lastly, what are your greetings to people and companies considering attending the webinar? What’s coming up and why everyone should participate?
What I’m going to talk about is how sustainability has changed enormously in the last 10–15 years, not just in the Nordics, but globally, and sustainability has become a buzzword that is added to everything without justifying it. It’s a lot of buzz out there, so what I’m trying to do is to tell where all this is heading and what your company can do to navigate through it and create trustworthy storytelling and leadership in sustainability that people can feel really feel.
Because people right now are tired of listening to how companies are bragging about how sustainable they are – we want to feel the difference, see the difference, and touch the difference. On the webinar, you’ll get concrete tools with which you can do that and distinguish your company in this extremely competitive environment. And I also hope to leave you a bit of optimism that this can really be done, and that everyone can be a part of the change.
Like to know more? See the entire program and register for the webinar here >>