Meet the Sustainability Leader: Carlsberg’s Simon Boas Hoffmeyer

As part of edie's sustainability leadership month for editorial content, we speak with Carlsberg's sustainability director Simon Boas Hoffmeyer, who discusses his inspiring journey to becoming a sustainability leader. Here's a full transcript of our discussion, in full.

edie: Hi Simon, December is edie’s ‘sustainability leadership’ month, and you’ve certainly been an effective leader at Carlsberg; igniting a real sense of positive change throughout the organisation in regards to sustainability. Where did you pick up your passion for green business?

SBH: Thank you. Well, I grew up in Aarhus – the second biggest city in Denmark – with my parents and my two sisters, and being environmentally aware was something that I was really spoon-fed from a young age. My father and mother have always been very concerned with the environment and my father was one of those guys who did composting in the backyard. I think this is something that has affected what I think our whole role in all of this is.

Quite quickly, I wanted to move from Aarhus to Copenhagen because it was the place to be if you wanted to do anything within business. When I was 19 I moved to Copenhagen to study and I started by focusing on business and communications, which was my Bachelors degree from Copenhagen Business School.

Throughout those studies, I very quickly found myself focusing on sustainability. There was no doubt that this was where my passion was. Some thought the financial projects were great or the corporate governance was interesting, but I though the CSR parts were great because it showed us how we could interact with society and really create solutions that are both beneficial for business and society and this was where I was focusing my efforts from very early on, and Carlsberg was already gaining my focus during that course.

edie: You were brought in to work for Carlsberg while you were still finalising your studies. How difficult was it to implement your learnings into a huge business that was just beginning to set its stall out in regards to sustainability and CSR?

SBH: I focused on doing a bit more business education as part of my Masters at Copenhagen Business School in International Business. This was to develop a better financial background and develop properly orientated sustainable business solutions. Something that is very apparent is that if you don’t speak the business language then you definitely won’t be able to develop any business-orientated sustainability solutions, and I wanted to switch my angle to account for different aspects of the business.

At that stage, I was more-or-less working full-time at Carlsberg and I was lucky enough to be able to move directly into a job working with CSR at Carlsberg right after I graduated. I started working officially full-time with the company back in 2008, when we created a department that focused on implementing CSR solutions in the company and this is where the journey really takes shape. It was a real privilege.

It’s important to stress that we needed to start with the basics – you don’t start out by working on concrete strategies and big partnerships from the beginning. One of the first things you need to be able to do is manage projects and make the business case for them internally and that’s really what we focused on alongside getting a lot of the optimal structures in place for getting data reporting implemented.

edie: Even today, a lot of large companies suffer from siloed working environments. How did the sustainability team at Carlsberg begin to integrate itself into the company and work effectively with other teams?

SBH: We didn’t want to be viewed as a specialist team and we are still just aiming to be another department that is contributing to Carlsberg’s growth and value. From the beginning, our view point was that we shouldn’t be a big central function, but we should ensure that sustainability gets integrated into the business frame and the way we do that is to ensure that the business has the right people in place to work on the major impacts that would create the best benefits for the company.

It is more important to have someone working on increasing the return rates of our refillable glass bottles who is a logistics expert, rather than having someone working on that from within the sustainability team.

We’re not a huge team and we shouldn’t be. Throughout the years, we have more or less been a core team of three to four people and I have current colleagues Eskild Andersen and Wouter de Groot who have been working in the team throughout since 2009.

edie: Including your work with Carlsberg during your studies, you’ve essentially been a part of the business for over a decade now. How has your day-to-day role changed as Carlsberg’s sustainability agenda has evolved?

SBH: The aim to begin with was to get our house in order so that we knew what our minimum standards were on everything. It was a matter of creating company policy and guidelines and getting structures in place. Once these were in place, the new strategy was aimed at seizing opportunity in the outside world on specific topics focusing on operational efficiency and savings and now were looking at sustainability as a business development. I am absolutely thrilled with the positive momentum that we have created on the work that we’re doing and the positive feedback that we’ve received.

Knowing the ins and outs of the business and working there for so long really, really helps in creating solutions tailored for sustainable development for my colleagues in the business. It is a big advantage but that’s not to say that staying in the same company is the only way to achieve this level of knowledge.

Now that I have a son, I am working very differently. Previously, I would work much longer hours in the office and wouldn’t be home until 8pm or 9pm. But now it’s more about getting home and seeing my son for an hour before he goes to sleep; so going home at six and then working in the evening. It helps me as well, and its nice working in a company like Carlsberg to be able to do that.

edie: Carlsberg has itself become something of a sustainability leader in recent years. What would you say has been the key skill that you’ve developed during your time at the company which has helped it develop in this way?

SBH: It’s a lot about having a sense of corporate empathy. You need to understand where others are coming from and finding out why they are acting the way they are and what circumstances surround them. When you understand that it becomes much easier to develop the right solutions. Besides the obvious skills, understanding colleagues and the right conversation and engagement that you get from that is important.

A key challenge is ensuring that all employees have a basic understanding of what sustainability means in as practical a way as possible. The best piece of advice that I ever received was a general approach to how you treat other people and one of my former bosses once said “be good and kind to people you meet because they are on their way up and you are on your way down”. It’s about treating young people with good ideas respectfully because you never know when the tables will turn. You need humility in the position that you have and this is something that I agree with I don’t want to work with the guy who is giving the waiter a hard time. Be humble.

As a person, I’m always trying to inspire others and I want to engage with others in conversation and I think that really helps if you want to make sure that a business is moving in a different direction. It would be too much to say that it is just me and I have good colleagues in the sustainability department, but the role of leader is one that I’m happy to place upon myself.

edie: Carlsberg has placed a particular focus on resource efficiency and the circular economy. To date, what are the sustainability initiatives that have impressed you the most? Has there been a particular project you’ve worked on which stands out?

SBH: What I love about a day at work is that I can spend as much time talking to people in India or China as the people in the office and the questions that come in are so diverse and cover an incredible variety of different topics, issues and opportunities. For me, it is one of the drivers for my passion and motivation that you have this fantastic big world and you can work with people from all over it to solve specific challenges.

Right now, we are rolling out training material for all employees and having all of them trained in sustainability is one of three key behaviours that we are implementing. Getting out there and communicating amongst all the Carlsberg employees is something that I’m really proud of. Externally it would be the great work we are doing with our partners through the Carlsberg Circular Community – such as the Cradle-to-Cradle certification and green fibre bottles – and the work is something that I’m incredibly proud to be a part of.

Of course, I do get to taste our great products as well. There are no guests in my house that don’t get to try a new brew from us and my family are very happy that they get to try new products for tasting. It’s a big perk having some beers on the table for guests.

edie: Despite the current uncertainty surrounding Brexit and Trump, the ratification of the Paris Agreement has really set a solid, global stage for sustainability. However, there are surely some challenges and barriers that you are noticing in this area. What are the biggest challenges you face?

SBH: The global feeling around sustainability is actually more positive than ever – we have the Sustainable Development Goals, which are much more business orientated than the Millennium Development Goals, and Paris has been ratified fast. We’ve reached a tipping point and I think there is a positive future for my son to grow up in now that we seem to be going down the right path.

But some aspects, such as the when a company has spent more money on communicating sustainability than actually doing the initiatives, aren’t beneficial. This is something I’ve been very focused on working against. No matter how much you twist and turn, especially in regards to sustainability, there are some cases where you can’t come up with a 100% clear ‘business case’ – it might be lacking something in order to have all of the information that you need. I continue to work on how to quantify the missing elements of business cases and the impact, both positive and negative, they will have. There’s a challenge in getting every aspect of the business case right and sometimes you need a leap of faith rather than having everything completely developed.

edie: With these new global levers in place [SDGs, Paris Agreement], how do you see the role of a sustainability professional changing over the coming years?

SBH: I think sustainability will take over the quality phrase. Something cannot be of high quality if it is not highly sustainable and I think this will be the truth. In terms of my role, the way we operate at Carlsberg will be the future. We’ll see small central teams in charge of strategies for sustainable business development. You’ll see a much larger extent of inspiration into the business across all areas.

It is something that will happen naturally because the more apparent and real the impacts of climate change are on the planet, the more people will understand it much more clearly. This will cause change will happen from the bottom-up rather than the top-down.

From a leadership perspective, this is where the real change will be. Today, sustainability is driven by leaders in the business who have it in their DNA, but in the future, sustainability and CSR will happen naturally, from the bottom-up, because people simply will not want to work with companies that don’t offer sustainable and responsible solutions or products.

Matt Mace

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