The participants of EADA’s International Master in Sustainable Business & Innovation have just been on their International Business Trip to Maastricht, a leader in sustainability that provided a 360º view of the industry. Participants experienced first-hand the impact of the private sector, with visits to companies committed to sustainable measures; the public sector, with analysis of governments that have set up social and environmental action plans; and the importance of individuals through meetings with dedicated local citizens. The trip acted as a complement to participants’ EADA on-site training and is a result of a partnership agreement between EADA and the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics.
Our students visited companies which are a point of reference in circular economy such as Emma Safety Footwear, DSM and WML (Water Company of Limburg), as well as the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels (Belgium) and the UNU-Merit (United Nations University) in Maastricht. We spoke to the director of the programme, Dr Josep Maria Coll, about the experience.
How would you summarise the International Business Trip to Maastricht?
The experience was very positive – we completed our two main objectives: the first was to visit sustainable businesses within a different cultural context to that of Barcelona. This is why we chose Maastricht, because sustainability is an integrated part of society and business.
Through the company visits, participants learnt that “size doesn’t matter” when it comes to sustainability. They saw examples of both SME’s and large companies applying sustainable measures in really innovative ways without having to invest large sums of money. Our second challenge was to study the importance of public-private partnerships when applying sustainability in the stages of strategy design and execution of specific actions. We saw examples of this when we visited the European Commission, where we learnt about the Horizon 2020 project and the EU Sustainable Development Strategy. Students also analysed the importance of these partnerships at the UNU-Merit in Maastricht, which focuses on exploring the social, political and economic factors that promote technological innovation.
What one factor do you think is most important to create and maintain sustainability in a business?
For me, the most important factor is the creation of a healthy work environment – people are at the centre of sustainability and it begins with them. This is why it is impossible to talk about sustainable businesses without mentioning sustainable people as well.
Companies need to take that first step by engaging their employees to support the company’s commitment to sustainability and employee wellness. By doing this, the company will increase its chances of employees committing to recycling, to producing sustainable strategies, to reducing energy costs and to communicating the impact of the company’s strategy on the consumer to the other stakeholders.
And what is the consumer’s role in sustainability? Consumers don’t always know what the company does to support sustainability.
The first goal of any company is to satisfy their clients. In fact, this is part of sustainability – a company with no clients cannot be sustainable. It is important to remember that some clients have a greater awareness of social and/or environmental issues than others. Another challenge lies in the consumer’s lack of information regarding the manufacturing process of a product. The number of socially responsible consumers is growing and they tend to buy more sustainable products. However, they cannot always find information on the label that explains the production process.
Could you give us an example?
We saw a clear example of sustainability when we visited EMMA Safety Footwear, which makes 100% sustainable technical footwear out of recyclable materials. The company is also a point of reference for a circular economy as it is transparent with the consumer regarding its supply chain process. It also has a good working environment and has successfully integrated employees with disabilities. If a consumer needs to buy this type of footwear and they know that the product is 100% sustainable and that the company shares their own social and environmental values, they will be willing to pay a bit more.
We have passed from a linear economy to a circular economy. What is the current situation and what still needs to be done?
I think we’re still at a very embryonic stage of a circular economy, but I am also very hopeful about the future. There is now a greater social and environmental awareness among consumers and companies are using new technologies to apply circularity. In this context, I think it is important to mention ecosystems and partnership networks. By increasing the number of collaborative agreements between companies and institutions, circularity could become a reality. However, governments still need to do more to encourage companies to make this transition. Businesses lack information regarding the multiple advantages that a circular economy can offer and business lobbies in key sectors such as electricity and water are not showing much interest as this change would mean an overhaul of strategies and the entrance of new players.
During the trip, participants heard a lot about innovation. What impact will new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) have on sustainable businesses?
No one yet knows the impact that these new technologies will have, but it is clear that they are a disruptive element. They will be the accelerators of sustainable impact as long as the company’s strategy is geared towards sustainability. This is why it is so important to link technology to sustainable strategy. Sustainability must form part of the company’s core and not just part of a CSR department. AI will improve the speed of execution, while IoT will have an impact on servitisation due to the shift towards selling services rather than products. And if we link all of this to an overall sustainability strategy, they will be able to sell solutions too. We could also add other key technologies such as nanotechnology, bioplastics and 3D printing connected to the sensorisation of materials.
Students learned about the importance of Blockchain for the future of sustainable business. What can you tell us about this?
We are still in the early stages of a Blockchain 1.0, but it is growing at an exponential rate. Its main advantage lies in the possibility of creating large service platforms without intermediaries. However, I do see one handicap: the involvement of the investment sector, which has led to speculation. There should be tighter regulation in this area.
You mentioned that we have passed from open innovation to a model of cross field innovation. Could you explain this concept?
Cross field innovation consists of offering innovative solutions by exploring sectors that are totally different to those of the company. A good example is the Danish beer company Carlsberg. They have exchanged the plastic ring packaging on their six-pack cans for recycled natural glue, which has allowed the company to cut the use of plastics by 76%. Other companies are already applying IoT to nappies. Through the use of sensors parents will be able to obtain information about the health of their children.
What was participants’ take away from the visit to the European Commission?
They learnt that innovation and sustainability do not exclusively belong in the private sector. It is true that sustainable innovation does require investment. However, there are European programmes that encourage and provide the first seed investment in high risk projects. These programmes also help to raise awareness of European legislation that favours sustainable policies. This offers companies the chance to move towards sustainable development. Our participants also heard about different positions of responsibility that they could take on at the European Commission.
And what feedback did students give about their visit to the UNU-Merit in Maastricht?
It was very positive – they learnt about the importance of the UN 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development which outlines 17 universal objectives covering issues such as poverty, peace, education, climate change, consumerism and sustainable production. It was also an opportunity for them to see what goes on at the UNU-Merit in their work exploring social, political and economic factors that influence technological innovation. They worked in teams to design their ideal sustainable city.
What career opportunities are there for participants after they finish the International Master in Sustainable Business & Innovation?
In the private sector, many participants work for companies that are making the transition towards sustainability. These types of companies often find it difficult to find the right profile. They are looking for professionals with a holistic vision who are able to understand the complexity of the market, society and the communities in which the companies operate. They also want professionals who are able to apply sustainable development strategies which add value to both the company and the consumer and create a shared value for all of the stakeholders.
There are also career opportunities for our participants in sustainable development agencies such as the European Commission, the UN, the World Bank or bilateral cooperation agencies that are looking to implement strategies and encourage sustainability using an innovative approach. These opportunities could be in the form of direct employment or consulting work.