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Going Dutch: why the country is leading the way on sustainable business


Dutch companies are frequently cited as amongst the most sustainable and progressive. Photograph: Art Kowalsky / Alamy/Alamy


Powered by article titled “Going Dutch: why the country is leading the way on sustainable business” was written by Oliver Balch, for on Tuesday 10th September 2013 06.00 UTC

Thursday is a big day in the corporate sustainability calendar. The latest Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) series is out.

The frontrunners remain unknown, yet if previous years are anything to go by, there’s a good chance that a hatful of Dutch companies will be among them. Netherlands-based global brands such as Philips, Unilever, AkzoNobel, DSM and PostNL have emerged as DJSI stalwarts.

Home to less than 17 million people and with an economy less than a third the size of France’s, this small European state continues to punch far above its weight in the sustainability stakes. So why is this?

On the face of it, all the pieces are in place for companies to embrace a progressive approach to business. In MVO Nederland (CSR Netherlands), the country boasts an active industry-led advocacy group. Public awareness is also high, with sustainability issues integrated into the school curriculum. A robust and active civil society, coupled with consistent business-friendly governments, helps too.

But the Netherlands is not the only nation to have a good framework for sustainability. Think of Sweden, or Germany, or even the UK. Nor does having the right conditions necessarily lead to achieving the right outcomes. Just because you can act sustainably doesn’t mean you will. What’s more, the conditions are changing in the Netherlands. Companies’ purse strings are tight, just as everywhere else in Europe.

Keeping the sea at bay, together

For Ton Büchner, chief executive and chairman of paints and coatings firm AkzoNobel, the answers lie in the country’s history and culture. Life, for a long time, was tough in the Netherlands. With around one fifth of the country situated below sea level, floods were commonplace. “People were standing up to their knees in mud and trying to build a society”, he says. According to Büchner, this forced people to work together. For more than four centuries, the Dutch have been installing dykes and drains to reclaim land from the sea and keep the water at bay. “It takes a lot of people to keep your feet dry,” he notes.

As a result, The Netherlands is relatively unique in practising a strong consensus-driven approach to decision-making. Dutch NGOs, politicians, academics and business people knew all about “multi-stakeholder” negotiation long before the sustainability field picked up on it. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when the government began to develop long-term environmental strategies and targets, it did so in conjunction with business.

Such cross-sector co-operation has increased business buy-in as a result, according to Professor Jacqueline Cramer, director of the Utrecht Sustainability Institute and a former minister of the environment: “More than in other countries, the relationship between government and industry is very important in establishing the commitment of the companies themselves.”

This week, for instance, business participants in a network initiative called Sustainable Tuesdays are proposing a range of sustainability measures in an attempt to inform the annual budget. Chief executives from the country’s largest eight companies, meanwhile, regularly meet under the umbrella of the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition.

Looking beyond its borders

Another important cultural factor is the Dutch trait of being relatively “open and outward-driven”, AkzoNobel’s Büchner adds. This is partly because it is such a small country (Spain is more than 12 times larger, for example). The habit of always looking beyond its own borders partly explains why the country has such a disproportionate number of multinational companies (and former colonies, for that matter). It has also kept Dutch opinion-formers in touch with what’s happening in the wider world, argues Büchner.

Alexander Collot D’Escury, chief executive at Dutch carpet-maker Desso, echoes this view. The historic threat of the sea means the Dutch expect to “live with nature”. Today, taking climate change seriously is therefore an easy sell given the prospect of rising sea levels. Likewise, for a country that imports a large proportion of its raw materials and its energy, talk of impending resource scarcity gets a ready audience among Dutch businesses.

Sustainability appeals to the practical, problem-solving side of the Dutch too. “The Cradle to Cradle approach gives answers to these [social and environmental] issues”, Collot D’Escury says, referring to the “reduce, reuse, recycle” methodology adopted by Desso. A reputation for sustainability makes sense to the country’s commercial nous as well. Having products that are healthier, cheaper (due to greater efficiencies) and more environmentally friendly distinguishes them in the international market, Collot D’Escury maintains. Desso’s UK sales, for example, have close to doubled in the past three years.


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