Interview with Prof. Dr. Edinger-Schons, Professor of Sustainable Business

Prof. Dr. Laura Marie Edinger-Schons is the Chief Sustainability Officer & Professor of Sustainable Business at the University of Hamburg, Germany. We talked to her about her work, learnings, plans, goals, and what sustainability means to her personally.

[…] one of the biggest challenges we face in the sustainability space is bridging the gap between impact calculation, technology, and scientific expertise, and finding ways to connect academia with practical solutions.

What does sustainability mean for you?

Prof. Dr. Laura Marie Edinger-Schons: Currently, our way of living is not sustainable, and it is imperative that we take action to protect our ecological and social resources for future generations. But sustainability is not just about the intergenerational aspect. It also involves the intragenerational aspect, as the way we use resources is not fairly distributed around the globe.

Therefore, I think it is essential to consider both dimensions of sustainability – intergenerational and intragenerational – in any sustainable development initiatives. By doing so, we can ensure that we are protecting our resources for future generations, as well as promoting a fair and equitable distribution of resources among all people, regardless of where they live or what their socioeconomic status is.

 

What motivates you to work in sustainability?

LES: During my twenties, I had the opportunity to travel to South-East Asia. Witnessing the conditions and problems that many people face in that part of the world made me realize that I wanted to contribute to finding solutions to these issues.

As I already studied business management and economics, my experiences during my travels inspired me to take a scientific approach to these problems. That’s why I decided to pursue a PhD and later became a lecturer at the University of Hamburg, where I teach on the topic of how we can make impacts and our use of resources measurable.

Through my research and teaching, I am hoping to make a positive difference in the world by finding ways to promote sustainable development and equitable resource use. I believe that measuring impacts and resource use is a critical step in achieving these goals, as it allows us to better understand the challenges we face and develop effective solutions to address them.

What do you think companies lack to become better at sustainability?

LES: Transparency is crucial for stakeholders to make better decisions – not only for investors but also for employees, suppliers, etc. For non-financial performance measurement, there are no uniform reporting criteria, ratings are based on mostly publicly available data, which is often not granular, and the landscape of rating formats is extensive and, therefore, confusing.

At the moment, the development in ESG is very divergent, which poses a problem. One example is the monetarization of impacts, meaning that a good social impact, e.g. providing jobs, could balance out ecological impacts in this model.

What are the biggest challenges in the sustainability space?

LES: In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges we face in the sustainability space is bridging the gap between impact calculation, technology, and scientific expertise, and finding ways to connect academia with practical solutions.

To address this challenge, we need to combine our knowledge of scientific methods with the new data availability provided by digital technology. Historically, academia and practice have not been connected enough, which has hindered our ability to develop effective solutions to sustainability issues. I believe it would be helpful to have support schemes from governments that promote collaboration between academia and practice.

How do you feel about legislation?

LES: I believe that legislation is needed in the sustainability space because we have seen that companies do not take sufficient voluntary action. One example of this is the Lieferkettensorgfaltspflichtengesetz in Germany. Initially, companies were given the choice to take action on their own, but they did not, which prompted the German government to put the law into place.

When Europe first introduced reporting duties for companies, there was a big discussion on whether we need reporting or not. However, now we see that the GRI standards have evolved to become an internationally accepted standard. What I appreciate about the GRI is that it was developed in a multi-stakeholder process, allowing many different stakeholders to contribute to setting up the reporting. This is very different from when politicians put something into place without consulting opinions from the space.

What concerns me is that currently sustainability could become a power game for companies, which is evident from the lobbying happening. Ten years ago, sustainability was not taken seriously. However, now big businesses realize that it is relevant to their core businesses, and many of them are taking ownership of the process. This can be dangerous to our overarching goal. We need to find a way to orchestrate sustainability processes so that not only the most powerful voices are heard.

While the legislation we have right now needs to evolve, we need to also ensure that the process of iterative improvement is democratic and participative.

In your opinion, what should companies nowadays do to become more sustainable?

LES: This relates to company size. Small startups have it easier to set up sustainable processes than big corporations, which already have a running system and established structures. A crucial thing for this is to have a sustainability culture in a company. One sustainability manager trying to steer a whole company in one direction is mostly not enough. Everyone in the company needs to be enabled to be their own sustainability manager. Only very few companies have succeeded in doing that. You need a strong purpose, like with Patagonia for example, paired with a bottom-up empowerment of everyone and the right incentive systems enabling also middle management to integrate sustainability into all activities.

A couple of big companies are now trying to put this into place by applying social intrapreneurship programs, creating platforms in the company for employees to drive sustainability innovation. I think that is a very good development. On the other hand, I get the feeling that the same companies tend to be a bit scared of their own programs. They are afraid of touching the core business. And you must be brave to do that, especially in times of crisis. But in the end, companies must find a way to do this, because the old business models are simply not going to be able to survive in the future. And that ranges from fossil fuel cars to IT manufacturers based on unsustainable production methods. In a lot of industries, fundamental change needs to happen to make them fit for the future, and that requires turning the company upside down. For that you have to be willing to take bold steps.

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