Changing the world one sustainable idea at a time

I've headed up sustainability at AkzoNobel for 14 years now. During that time, I have often been utterly amazed - and disappointed - about how some segments of the corporate world (even in our own industry sector) have gone about adopting and incorporating sustainable business practices.

Changing the world one sustainable idea at a time

Too many short-term focused companies fail to understand that sustainability is business and business is sustainability. I’m proud to say that sustainability is at the heart of everything we do at AkzoNobel and this has been further underlined by new goals we have outlined for 2050.

In order to transform our use of resources and make our societal contribution more distinctive, we are charting a path towards zero carbon emissions – across our entire value chain. This will result in radical resource efficiency, zero waste and zero harm from our products, while delivering a positive environmental and social impact. It’s an ambitious step, but we aim to achieve our zero carbon and 100 percent renewable energy targets by 2050.

Some might say it’s a bold ambition, but it’s also an exciting one. We’ve been a leader in sustainability for the past decade and we continue to drive transformational change in our total value chain. We intend to accelerate our move towards zero carbon emissions and provide customers with solutions to help them benefit from effective resource and energy use. It’s precisely by helping our customers to avoid emissions that we’ll be able to achieve our goal of net positive.   

It’s in stark contrast to those companies that still launch sustainability programs in the hope that it will make good PR and that they will be financially rewarded for doing good – even when those programs aren’t relevant to their strategy and operations. They fail to grasp the strong link between financial performance and performing well on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. In their view, sustainability comes at a cost.

This is certainly not the approach taken by sustainability leaders. Good leadership is about prioritizing key areas of sustainable development and simultaneously boosting both financial and ESG performance.

Invariably, this involves developing major innovations in products, processes and business models. Because true leadership requires a different mindset. The companies that do lead have chosen to focus on all stakeholders, which means they can identify the issues that generate economic, environmental and social “shared” value. And, rest assured, they fully understand that this will also benefit their shareholders. .

At AkzoNobel, sustainability is vital for the future success of our company, our society and the planet. That’s why we’ve adopted a Planet Possible sustainability agenda. It’s a commitment to doing more with less which supports our optimism and conviction  that the planet can easily support nine billion people by 2050 – but only if we understand the wide-ranging transformation and new business solutions that will be needed.

We are entirely convinced that embedded sustainability efforts clearly result in a positive impact on business performance. And we’ve seen the results to back up that conviction. It’s a strategy and approach which was developed by reviewing the risks and opportunities for sustainable business growth against those global trends that will impact our key market segments by 2050.

Innovation, of course, is playing a vital role. It’s at the beating heart of our activities and is fueling our progress towards a portfolio with a significant percentage of revenue from eco-premium solutions, offering both social and environmental benefits. Recent examples include the work being done by our Decorative Paints business to drive for a market transition towards clean air and water-based products; our public-private partnerships to transform the renewable energy markets; and our ongoing commitment to helping the shipping industry reduce fuel consumption and cut emissions through the use of our Intersleek marine coatings, fuel efficiency technologies (Intertrac) and carbon credits scheme.

It’s all about being fully committed, adopting innovative business models and continuing to evolve. By building the right sustainable strategies, the world’s most influential and innovative companies can pave the way to a more sustainable society. One which meets the needs of the current generation, without sacrificing those of generations to come.

André Veneman is AkzoNobel’s corporate director of sustainability

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