Building a ‘coalition of the willing’, one person at a time

Ton Büchner, chief executive officer of Dutch giant AkzoNobel, speaks to Eco-Business editor Jessica Cheam about how his love for the Tintin comic series inspired wanderlust, and how traversing the globe convinced him that sustainability is the only way to do business.

As a boy, Ton Büchner “chewed up” the books of The Adventures of Tintin – the renowned series of comics created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi – which gave him the “travel virus”. While living and working across the world including parts of Asia, Europe and the United States in the phase of his career, he realised the impact that good leaders have on business, for wider society and the planet.

“I travelled so many places in my early years and I had the realisation that leaders have a huge influence and you can create something for the company and for the planet.”

Under Büchner’s leadership, AkzoNobel has put sustainability at the centre of its business strategy. Its sustainability policy, called Planet Possible, commits the company to generate 20 per cent of its revenue from sustainable solutions by 2020, and to reduce its carbon emissions across its value chain by 25 to 30 per cent by 2020.

The Euronext-listed Dutch multinational has been ranked among the top of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) for several years, and is also part of the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition, a collaborative venture of eight Dutch multinational companies that work on initiatives for sustainable growth. The companies are: Unilever, DSM, AkzoNobel, Friesland Campina, Philips, Shell, KLM and Heineken.

The 51-year-old, who was appointed AkzoNobel’s chief executive and chairman of the board of management and the executive committee in 2012, says he firmly believes that companies can be a force for good “if you create enough people in a coalition of the willing… you can create a momentum that makes a difference.”

Prior to joining the chemical giant, the Dutch national was president and chief executive of Suzler Corporation, leading one of Switzerland’s leading industrial companies which employs over 16,000 people.

An engineer by training who earned his Master of Science degree in Civil Engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Büchner spent many years in the oil and gas construction industry before joining Sulzer in 1994.

In this interview, he shares why it’s important for AkzoNobel to be a sustainability leader, how it plays a role in making cities around the world more liveable, and his outlook on Asia.

Tell us about Planet Possible, which is AkzoNobel’s sustainability commitment. What are some of the indicators you use to measure its success?

Some people call it people, planet, profit, some people call it economic, social and environmental sustainability, it’s all the same and we have clear dashboards and targets for them.

On the social side, we have an external company measuring the engagement of the employees, and this has improved seven years in a row. We also measure our impact on society, the employment that we provide, the salary levels and the education and community programmes that we support.

On the planet side, we track and measure the energy we use, our carbon footprint, the gases we produce, and how we report them. On waste, we also report on the volume of waste being re-circulated and used for other products, compared to the amount that goes into landfills, or get incinerated. We’re constantly trying to do better.

Importantly, we’ve also put this pressure on our supplier base to make a commitment to reducing their carbon footprint. We’ve selected our top 10 key suppliers and work with them on improving their energy efficiency, safety, people and environmental aspects. So we don’t just improve sustainability within the company but across the value chain.

Some companies have set very aggressive targets, such as using 100% renewable energy. Will this be something you would consider?

Well, some companies can do that but in our industry, we use a huge amount of energy. So there’s a significant difference in the energy use of products when you compare ours to the companies (who have made the commitment). We recognise that heavy industry companies have a much bigger challenge to reduce energy use or use renewable energy. But we still strive to achieve it, and in fact, we use 44 per cent renewable energy currently and this is better than say, a retailer whose energy is 90 per cent renewable because they use relatively much less.

Some of our suppliers were concerned that if we knew they were saving energy, we’d ask for a lower price, but I said no.

The combined aspiration for both the company and our customers is that we want the same quality with the same durability, just with the same price and just hell of a lot more sustainable.

The aim is to go over 50 per cent. And we also measure our carbon footprint and have a target to reduce it by 25 per cent by 2020 and also require this of our suppliers.

So we are making commitments to the outside world that we have an aspiration to bring the value chain’s carbon footprint down as opposed to just the company’s carbon footprint, because the latter is quite easy. But the real challenges come in influencing your suppliers.

How did you manage to convince employees and suppliers of the business case of sustainability?

We talk to our suppliers and on both sides, we educate each other on what we’re doing, and as a result this cross-learning creates the next step of improvement.

Some of our suppliers were concerned that if we knew they were saving energy, we’d ask for a lower price, but I said no. The combined aspiration for both the company and our customers is that we want the same quality with the same durability, just with the same price and just hell of a lot more sustainable.

That’s what our customers want and if we can’t give it to them, we haven’t fulfilled our duty. There may be an interim period where this is hard for our products to achieve, and they may need some support but after that they should stand on its own feet.

AkzoNobel also launched the Human Cities initiative in 2014 – can you share with us how this improves the liveability of cities?

Our cities are growing – around half of the world’s population live in cities and this will increase to nearly 70 per cent by 2020.

We look at bringing colour to people’s lives and at the protection of heritage because a lot of people have lost the connection with their cities. By rebuilding this heritage, we re-create the meeting places that were lost, so that people have a social connection to the neighbourhoods where they live in.

We do it by sponsoring a lot of education, and we make sure there is always some space for sports and leisure in the neighbourhoods. For example, the initiative has helped to revitalize favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as well as make sport more accessible to young people. Even in slums we’ve built table tennis tables and basketball courts in unexpected areas for people to play, so there’s playfulness in the system.

It’s not just painting a few things. It’s also creating entrepreneurship in an area that creates a social environment that people love to live in. In fact, the slum houses almost tripled in value, I didn’t know they had a value in the first place. It’s amazing how we’re able to create better lives with our products.

We also help to restore historic landmarks, such as Burkill Hall in Singapore and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. So the culmination of the initiative’s six pillars - color, heritage, transport, education, sport and leisure, and sustainability – creates more social cohesion in cities and makes them more liveable.

AkzoNobel is also involved in the 100 Resilient Cities and a larger Human Cities Coalition. Tell us more about them?

To drive larger scale change, we need to multiply our effect through partnerships. So we’ve partnered The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities. They were largely focused on resilience to natural disasters, but we also wanted to inject the concept of social resilience. It’s important to create cohesion in a city and to make it liveable and inspiring, as opposed to just physical resilience.

More recently, we co-founded the Human Cities Coalition, which is a public-private partnership of similar-minded Dutch organizations from government, NGOs and business focusing on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 11 on sustainable cities and communities. It focuses on issues such as land rights, public spaces, drinking water, sanitation, drainage, housing and healthcare facilities.

We went to the government with 140 stakeholders and said: “We want to make things happen. The only thing you have to do is not say ‘no’ and we’ll go.”

Our positive influence on society is connected with our purpose. The new generation do not want to work for companies who just run after money. They want to have more, they’re searching for meaning at the place they work.

So we’re going to places like Jakarta and try and rebuild these areas through a bottom-up assessment of what people want so that these areas become more liveable and inspiring.

Our positive influence on society is connected with our purpose. The new generation do not want to work for companies who just run after money. They want to have more, they’re searching for meaning at the place they work. So these initiatives don’t just help our social purpose, but also help us to attract and retain talent.

How did you become so personally convinced about the importantce of sustainability in business?

When I was younger and thinking about what I would do with my life, I always said I wanted to be able to touch the products made by a company. So I did not want to go into banking or consulting, I want to be able to grab my work with my hands. As an engineer, I love building things so that’s the motivation.

When I joined Suzler, we were building jetties in Singapore, we were building harbours, oil and gas plants, and dykes in the Netherlands. The company kept giving me opportunities and eventually I ended up in the CEO chair. Then I was asked to join AkzoNobel and to drive its sustainability strategy.

My interest in it probably started as a kid. I was a big fan of The Adventures of Tintin and would chew these books up like there was no tomorrow. It gave me the travel virus and I wanted to see everything. And my many years traveling around the world for work helped me understand the way the world works. And I thought, if we continue as we are, then we’re going to find ourselves in trouble pretty soon.

Then I realised that as a leader in a company, you have an influence and can create something good for the company and good for the planet. So I developed this ability to influence, and I believe that if you create enough people in a coalition of the willing, you can create a momentum that makes a difference, and that’s what we’re doing at AkzoNobel.

Now that Asia has become the economic centre of the world, what is your outlook on it and the level of awareness on sustainability issues in the region?

I’ve lived for a number of years in Singapore and in China, and travelled in the region a lot. In the 90s, the region was entirely about making money and supplying the West with goods, and it was an incredibly exciting period, especially in Southeast Asia. The awareness of sustainability was pretty low then, people filtered what they didn’t want to hear.

But as societies developed and reached a certain level of wealth – Singapore got there first – I think awareness levels have risen. In China, the growth has been so impressive but it has also created a set of issues such as pollution in the air, water and waste systems, which people neglected for a long time. The government is now responding by making it a key part of their policy agenda. They are manufacturing massive amounts of solar panels and windmills and they are serious about cleaning up the country.

We’re seeing this even among our customers in China. We have mothers who come to ask if our paints are sustainable because they do not want their children to be exposed to lead or heavy chemicals. People think in China people always ask about price. But now it’s changing, people are asking about sustainability.

Finally, what do you think is the greatest challenge hindering people from embracing sustainability?

The biggest challenge is that for individuals, the problem seems so big, so international and knows no borders. So they very quickly switch off. “What can I do about it? I’m too small to make an impact.”

It is this “give up syndrome” that people have because of the magnitude and global nature of the problem. But if everyone thinks they can’t make a difference, then no one will. Think of the world we’re leaving behind for our kids. The problem will not solve itself. People need to realise this and work together to solve the issues created by industrialisation.

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