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Building momentum: moving from talk to action on sustainability

DNV GL’s chief sustainability officer on the power of inspiration, solutions-based thinking and strong leadership in the journey towards sustainability. This piece originally appeared in the DNV GL Partner Zone on the Guardian Sustainable Business Rethinking Prosperity hub. By Katharine Earley.

Bjørn Haugland1

Chief sustainability officer of DNV GL, Bjørn K. Haugland believes big business must close the gap between words and action.

The chief sustainability officer of DNV GL, Bjørn K. Haugland, is optimistic about the capacity of business to build momentum on sustainability and contribute to an equitable, flourishing society. His is an optimism firmly rooted in an understanding that the knowledge and technology exist – today – to tackle the world’s great environmental and social challenges. And business stands to accelerate the pace of change.

Now more than ever, Haugland believes big business must close the gap between words and action. This was a key finding of DNV GL’s report Transforming Business, Changing the World, an in-depth review of the impact of business and the UN Global Compact on sustainable development. The report notes that while there has been a considerable shift in understanding and commitment among senior business leaders, with sustainability increasingly being seen as a strategic priority, there is still much to be done.

“Businesses must adopt a new mindset to achieve the level of transformative change we need to forge a safe, sustainable future,” says Haugland. “The power of inspiration is fundamental in this equation. Creating a strong, solutions-based narrative around sustainability is vital in helping companies to convert risk into opportunity and reconnect with their original purpose: to serve the needs of society.”

So how can business make the all important transition from talk to action?

Catalysing action starts with progressive leadership, Haugland believes. It is up to those at the helm of major companies to recognise that business and society are not two separate entities, and take a definitive stance on supporting local communities. This is what DNV GL calls ‘business statesmanship’ – the idea that being an active and positive contributor to the world is crucial to the long-term prosperity of companies, people and the planet.

“With knowledge comes responsibility,” says Haugland. “Businesses are aware of the risks posed by climate change and resource scarcity. It’s important to act wisely on this knowledge, particularly in this era of intense stakeholder scrutiny. We [businesses] have the opportunity, the global networks, technologies and resources to make a real and tangible difference, to innovate and engage with new solutions. It’s about having the courage to lead and to realise we can do more than we think.”

Importantly, the transformation from a wasteful, linear economy to a regenerative, circular economy will take place from the bottom up, Haugland believes. Nurturing and investing in innovation is therefore paramount. For example, DNV GL invests 5% of its revenue in research and development, and its 16,000 employees help to ensure that sustainability is central to the design and delivery of its services.

Of course, business cannot go it alone. Collaboration with multiple stakeholders, including regulators, will be crucial to developing pathways to sustainable future. And the shared ambition to make a positive contribution to society could be a great conversation starter.

“As businesses, we should ask ourselves – how can we support governments more?” Haugland says. “How can we support the development of smarter regulations to achieve the transition we need?”

Regulators can also play their part by paving the way for sustainable technologies and prioritising sustainability when issuing bids for infrastructure. Norway has just commissioned the world’s first zero emissions ferry, for example, generating widespread interest.

As a values-drive company, DNV GL’s longstanding purpose is to create a sustainable future for life, property and the environment. A deep understanding of sustainability guides its thinking, and every employee is encouraged to be curious, humble, and help contribute to the company’s vision for a safe, sustainable future.

“We ask ourselves every day what does this [the vision] mean and how can we get there?” says Haugland. “We don’t have all the answers yet, but it’s why we get up in the morning, it’s what we’re striving for. What is clear is where we can deliver the biggest impact – by enabling our customers to embrace innovative solutions and technologies.”

As chief sustainability officer, Haugland sees part of his role as exploring how the company can move from words to action and build momentum on its vision. And this process is well underway, he believes. For example, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary in 2014, DNV GL sparked discussions around the world by exploring six key themes for the future: transforming ‘business as usual’, sustainable shipping, decoupling energy use from CO2 emissions, exploring the Arctic’s resources wisely, harnessing the power of technology and adapting to climate change.

This focus on future opportunities is characteristic of the company’s solutions-based approach. The importance of sharing knowledge on existing innovations inspired DNV GL to join forces with Monday Morning and Realdania in 2011 to create innovation think-tank Sustainia. Now in its fourth year, the organisation weaves a narrative of hope and optimism, including through its annual study of the top 100 sustainability breakthroughs.

Together with the UNGC and Monday Morning, DNV GL has also published a Global Opportunity Report, in which it examines 15 opportunities arising from five global risks. The next edition will be released in 2016.

Finally, the company takes it commitment to action one step further through its ‘extraordinary innovation projects’, such as its unmanned floating liquefied natural gas concept, which allows for cleaner exploration of remote, offshore gas fields.

This content is paid for and produced to a brief agreed with DNV GL, sponsor of the rethinking prosperity hub.

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