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An interview with Almut Kaupp, director of Steinbeis Consulting Center for International Marketing & Sustainability

Climate goals, scarce resources, but also the protection of human and labor rights are the responsibility of companies and workers alike. An ecosystem is only stable if the rate of natural reproduction is taken into account, as well as capacities to use and regenerate resources. If these limitations are not considered, conditions become unstable endangering the continued existence of the overall system. Steinbeis expert Almut Kaupp spoke to TRANSFER about the different ways sustainability management can help companies to avoid such circumstances, and how to make this happen in practice.

Hello Ms. Kaupp. Sustainability management is one of those buzzwords, but what’s in it for a company?

The term “sustainability management” presupposes that a company is pursuing sustainable development and has declared that corporate social responsibility is part of its strategic orientation. Thus sustainability management is the outcome of an ethical and responsible attitude taken by a company. In broad terms that means a company is managed in such a way that it can survive in the long term, while making careful use of economic, environmental, and social resources.

In individual terms, this affects four areas: The society, the business enterprises, the market, and the environment. All these should be part of making a contribution to positive, sustainable developments in society. Conscious of this, doing business responsibly requires long-term business planning. This entails several factors, one of which is setting up sustainability management within the company and instilling it within the organization. This includes tangible, financial, informal, and cognitive resources, as well as permanent contact with stakeholders – so the organization is prepared in process terms for growth in the market and the environment. Other essential aspects are continuous sustainability reports for internal transparency, commitment, and last but not least a focus on sustainability in all areas across and within the company operations. A sustainable focus with a healthy sustainability management helps secure the long-term future of the company and the maintenance and growth of sales. It also enhances resource efficiency in all areas of the business.

What factors are important for a company entering into sustainability management?

As mentioned, sustainability management primarily presupposes some level of identification within the corporate philosophy, so it means laying down corresponding guidelines to provide a framework and code of conduct for sustainability management. We base the work we carry out at my Steinbeis Consulting Center on a holistic approach: An enterprise is considered as a whole, embedded within a micro- and macro-economic context. We conduct workshops with a mixture of employees from different departments and positions to derive the very essence of a company and develop the corporate philosophy from the inside out. What are the properties that define the substance of this company? What’s its DNA? What’s already done in terms of the constituents of sustainability? And what are the underlying motivations?

There are the stakeholder surveys that look at the overall field of influence of the company. Starting with the employees and looking at the customers, the suppliers, the local communities, where the company is headquartered, the investors and so on. A picture of the company is drawn, which “holds a mirror” to its social context. From the goals that have been worked and the existing commitments – and I’m sure that most SMEs are already involved in sustainable activities in many areas – a sustainability roadmap is dressed up, which is used as a basis for the sustainability management and to ensure its realization. We have to scale off the “silo mentality” whereby isolated sustainable measures are restricted to only certain parts of a business and have to focus more on holistic operational implementation, which also cover external factors and international areas.

Sustainability and globalization – how can these two seemingly irreconcilable aspects be brought together?

This is a good question, especially when considering that globalization – as a basic condition of export – seems to be responsible for the non-sustainable conditions we are living in. Despite this, I don’t think we should start shipping our parcels to Russia on bicycles. I would even suggest that exports and internationalization are an opportunity and an obligation for us to “export” and implement our ethical parameters and standards internationally (round the world). As already applied in the particulars of the export controls, which include provisions on complying with sanctions and anti-terrorism regulations, these set important international standards.

But it’s also important to consider the value chain. Since our international procurement management offers many options to act in a sustainable way. Now there are a lot, who say that they might not be able to introduce control mechanisms along to the very last supplier. Here I have to disagree. Every company acting on the international floor already has implemented processes concerning the calculation of the goods origin. You might see, that it’s easy to adapt these processes in order to safeguard sustainability. With regard to the international business my suggestion is to apply more favorable customs rates to sustainably produced goods. This should promote the protection of human rights, the occupational safety, the recyclability, and the production that conserves resources and should emphasize the importance of sustainability worldwide. It should be a matter of course for a sustainably oriented company that sustainability management is not just implemented in the parent plant, but that the ethos is proliferated into each country in which it has business relations – whether that’s through a subsidiary, suppliers, or even customers and negotiation partners.

What do you think the future holds for sustainability within companies, and which technological and societal trends will be decisive in this respect?

If we want a sensible future, we have no choice but to encorporate sustainability within companies as a key success factor. There’s nothing new in that, and the “honorable man of commerce” was a well-known term at the beginning of the last century. But until now, entrepreneurial success is based on monetary growth. Fortunately, there is an increasing tendency to rethink this in the world of business. Society is developing a growing appetite for innovations and an openness to new working models and setups. What we also need is a book of rules that stipulates business to be successful if they behave responsible towards people and the environment and they’re committed to business that saves resources – in an environmental and economic sense, as well as in a social one. We’ve already achieved a great deal in many areas, with ISO certification in energy (ISO 50001), the environment (ISO 14001, or EMAS 3), and quality (ISO 9001).

Combined with technological developments stemming from Industry 4.0, I see the emergence of completely new market opportunities – with industries opening up new procurement markets for recycling companies, thus creating new jobs. We already have the technical possibilities, we just need to apply them where they’re currently needed globally. It is really interesting that we’ve developed exponentially in lots of sectors of industry in technological terms and are more advanced than in the recycling industry in the same areas. It’s time to catch up, and it is merely a question of importance and capital distribution. There’s also plenty of potential in non-monetary areas where, among others, the social management systems are working (ISO 26000, OHSAS, 18001, SA 8000, AA 1000). This raises many questions and challenges. How can I make social values more measurable? What can I do to quantify increased motivation levels among staff – by new tasks, or the uplift you get from vacations? Which are the impacts of new working hour models? And can they be incorporated in reporting systems and controlling? In order to see the “big picture” for the overall business these are even crucial.

We’re currently undergoing a period of upheaval, in which the state of our planet and its effects are pointing out to us in which areas we need to apply our innovative capabilities to, and where we need to introduce technological and digital developments in order to create value in the long term – and we have every potential to do this!


Almut Kaupp

Almut Kaupp | Director
Steinbeis Consulting Center International Marketing & Sustainability (Freiburg)