Journalist: Simon Eppenberger | Photographer: Markus Bertschi | Magazin: Green opportunity – November 2021
This will be a decade that will bring the Swiss economy together and create new opportunities for sustainable businesses. Corine Blesi, Managing Director of the Swiss Economic Forum (SEF), talks about ethical management and responsible investing.
Sustainability is one of the big trends emerging in society, business and politics. How competitive is the Swiss economy compared with its peers in
It’s not simply a trend. For the SEF, it’s the dawn of the sustainability decade, with a great many pointers being given for the future. And the corporate giants are now making it part of their strategy. In Switzerland, we’re doing very well in this area in some ways, but there’s room for improvement in others.
Per capita, we’re the third largest producer of waste – but also the world champions in recycling. What you don’t see so clearly every day is that a great deal of investment in the sustainability sector flows through Switzerland. We’re not doing so badly overall and like doing ourselves down.
How has the issue of sustainability evolved at the SEF since the organisation was founded 23 years ago?
Sustainability used to be primarily a political issue, and the view was that entrepreneurship and sustainability didn’t mix. But lots of new, exciting business models have now emerged. Companies are investing in technology and innovation, and this is paying dividends in terms of sustainability. The debate at the SEF has shifted in recent years as a result. The issue is no longer just political, but now has a serious economic aspect.
What do you think are the next important steps for the Swiss economy in terms of corporate sustainability?
To recognise the opportunities that the issue offers and the power you gain if you interlink your own business model with sustainability. The full potential here hasn’t been reached yet. For the best proof that sustainable management can stand the test of time, just look at successful family businesses. They make decisions with the next generation in mind. With large companies though, it’s still too often about coming up with a strategy, but then failing to put it into practice. Management in particular needs to act as a role model here. More honest and long-term commitment is needed.
The Swiss Economic Forum (SEF) is Switzerland’s leading business conference. It was founded in 1998. Every year, over 1,350 leaders from business, academia, politics and the media meet for an exchange of views and dialogue. The SEF also presents the Swiss Economic Award, the most important prize for young companies in Switzerland. The 24th SEF will be held on 2 and 3 June 2022.
Making sustainability part of your business model rarely leads to a quick profit. Yet investing in socially and environmentally responsible business models is becoming increasingly popular in the financial sector. Why?
Many people still buy in to the narrative that there’s no money to be made from sustainability. But things have changed. For example, the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne has shown that sustainable investments are equally good if not even more successful in the long term than those that don’t meet the criteria for a responsible approach to environmental, social and corporate governance aspects.
“We see sustainability as the third big issue of our time, alongside entrepreneurship and innovation and technology.”
Is the financial sector becoming a driver of sustainability?
The trend has been moving in this direction and this prompted us to launch the Impact Finance Forum in September, at which the main topic of discussion was how to fund the transformation towards a sustainable economy. Investors have a huge amount of leverage. They’re increasingly asking themselves how they can invest money profitably and achieve a sustainable outcome. They can also directly influence companies and their management.
The consumption of sustainable products has been increasing, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Can new consumer behaviour create a predominantly sustainable economy?
Besides investment, consumers are critical when it comes to bringing about major changes. We surveyed 300 Swiss people on this issue. 65% said that it was important or very important for them when deciding on a purchase that a company met its social or ecological responsibilities. 77% of respondents said that this would become even more important for them in the future. These are enormously high figures and they represent a big influence.
Corine Blesi (45) studied international relations at the University of St. Gallen. After working at the World Economic Forum (WEF) and as a research assistant to two federal councillors, she spent eight years on the Executive Board of Rega air rescue. She then set up her own platform: Zurich Economic Impulse. In 2019, she took over as head of NZZ’s conference business, which includes the Swiss Economic Forum (SEF). She’s been a member of the NZZ’s Extended Executive Board since 2021. Corine Blesi is married and lives with her partner in Feusisberg (canton of Schwyz).
What opportunities do you see for successful sustainable development at a social and ecological level?
The concept of sustainability comes from forestry and means not cutting down more trees than you can replant. This should apply to all resources today. Living and doing business sustainably can only bring about positive changes for the environment and people.
Where do you see the risks in terms of sustainability?
We now have a labelling industry where you can basically buy just about anything with a label – but not everything with a green label is sustainable. It’s extremely difficult to track the sustainability of the various steps involved in creating a product or its parts. It’s easy to use the marketing budget for greenwashing. And anyone who really does want to act responsibly can lose sight of the big picture with all the labels.
Do we need laws to regulate the requirements on sustainability?
We believe in taking a liberal approach and having an open and honest discussion about the issue. Everyone wants to know what impact a given purchase will have. When is an organic product actually organic? What standards must it meet? And who sets the criteria? Many industries are grappling with these challenges, including the financial industry where there’s a big debate going on about what constitutes a sustainable investment. The market will show which standards will become established.
Do good and talk about it: is that still the case – or should people instead hold back in the age of social media and instant outrage?
Credible communication and transparency are expected and are becoming increasingly important. It’s vital not to sugar-coat things with a ‘sustainability gloss’ or create a green image that doesn’t accord with the actual business model. Sooner or later, it’ll have a damaging effect.
How can you encourage a company to operate sustainably?
Sustainability can’t be imposed from the outside. Decision-makers in a company must see the added value for themselves. When sustainability becomes more important for customers, employees and investments, a rethink will automatically take place.
Does the SEF have sustainability goals?
We see sustainability as the third major issue of our time, alongside entrepreneurship and innovation and technology. That’s why we’re launching the Sustainable Switzerland initiative, which combines all the competencies of the NZZ. It’s not just about holding meetings at our conferences, but includes a dialogue and content platform that deals with sustainable Switzerland 365 days a year. This is intended to be a hub for business, science, politics and society. Sustainability is also an important generational issue. Many seasoned Swiss companies can no longer reach young people, who are passionate about sustainability. It’s here that we want to address the relevant issues, build bridges and facilitate dialogue.
What would you like to have achieved with the SEF by 2030?
We want to have built an SEF that’s a beacon of sustainability. The goal of the Sustainable Switzerland initiative is to contribute to the sustainable economy beyond Switzerland’s borders.
Corine Blesi – In the spotlight
What’s your vision for the world of tomorrow?
That we do at least our best to leave the world as we found it. A lot will be achieved if we do that.
What personal goal do you want to achieve?
Ultimately, I’d like to be able to say that I’ve spent my time, both professionally and privately, with the people who are important and dear to me.
What would you like to pass on to the next generation?
Courage, innovation and a pioneering spirit will always pay off at some point. To fail every now and then is part of the process and is OK.
What are you particularly proud of?
That we always bring fascinating people together at the SEF and that good ideas, new initiatives and, in this spirit, value creation are the fruits of these encounters.
What have you learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic?
That we took our freedom for granted and really didn’t value enough how freely we could move around before it happened.