“Welcome to Denmark”, reads a large bottle-green billboard at Copenhagen’s international airport. “That deserves a Carlsberg” the strapline continues, proving that the Danes like their beer. In fact, they like it so much that they want everyone to have a taste. So in 1883, when Carlsberg scientist Emil Christian Hansen hit on a process for propagating pure yeast, the emblematic Danish brewer declined to patent the discovery. As a result, most lager beers in the world today can be dated back to Hansen’s breakthrough.
The story behind Hansen’s yeast, catchily titled Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis, says a lot about Denmark. For one, the small Scandinavian country holds few things in higher esteem than good science. Just look at a list of the country’s largest companies. Pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, shipping and oil/gas giant Maersk, renewable energy provider Dong, thermostat manufacturer Danfoss, and so forth: lab coats reign.
Second, they’re happy – or happier than most – to co-operate. That’s partly down to size: with a population of less than 5.6 million people, clubbing together makes sense. History plays its part too. In the early industrial period, when Denmark’s economy was still predominantly rural, its farmers formed some of Europe’s earliest and most significant agricultural co-operatives. Bundle that up with a strong Protestant work ethic, and you have a culture that understands the merits both of industriousness and interdependence.
Sustainability wise, that puts Denmark pretty far down the track from the off. Notions of participation, dialogue, collaboration, societal responsibility and wealth distribution (or shared value, to give it its contemporary moniker) – all the themes around which the modern sustainability movement is built – come relatively naturally to Danes. The country’s generous (and expensive) welfare system and progressive labour laws are objects of national pride, not ideological division.
Not that Denmark is some kind of green, ethical haven. A quick glance at the campaign website DanWatch highlights the kinds of corporate misdemeanours common the world over. In fact, with an upsurge in the outsourcing of manufacturing in recent years, Danish brands are more in the firing line now than ever. IC Companys, Bestseller, PWT Group and DK Company, for example, were among the Denmark-based retailers embroiled in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh earlier this year.
Nor is all well at home. Economic growth is hobbling along, as is Denmark’s aging population, both of which are putting the country’s much-prized welfare model under strain. Unemployment benefit for those out of work for more than two years was recently cut by 40%, for example.
Neither does a natural affinity for matters sustainable necessarily translate into effective practice. Danish firms may implicitly understand the importance of social and environmental issues, says Copenhagen-based sustainability consultant Tania Ellis, but few think about it strategically. Outside Denmark’s small coterie of huge companies, most firms lack formal systems for managing their impacts or internal structures for developing sustainable innovation. It’s time they got explicit, argues Ellis.
What distinguishes Denmark from almost all its European peers, however, is the proactive approach of successive governments to sustainability issues. The country’s environmentalists point out that Denmark was the first in the continent to establish an official environment ministry (back in 1971, almost three decades before the UK).
Early regulatory crackdowns on industrial waste and pollution have since expanded into tax incentives for low-carbon technologies (Denmark boasts some of the most cutting edge wind turbine manufacturers in the world today) and renewable energy generation. The country’s bias towards science and knowledge-based industries has helped smooth the way, according to Peder Holk Nielsen, chief executive of industrial biotech firm Novozymes: “It’s been easier in Denmark than it has been in some of our neighbouring countries where there are massive [heavy] industries that need to be defended.”
Another unprecedented step came in 2005, when the government bankrolled a national sustainability campaign offering free conferences and materials to small business managers and employees. This three-year People and Profit project was followed in 2008 by an Action Plan for Social Responsibility (PDF).