A business case for sustainability – possible or not?

Henley´s latest MasterClass was all about sustainability. Read the insights of keynote speakers Stephen Pain and Kati Ihamäki.

MasterClass: Age of sustainability

The last day of November 56 Henley Alumni members gathered around a big topic on every agenda; sustainability. The MasterClass organized at the Borenius Attorneys Ltd, in downtown Helsinki, offered interesting angles and real-life examples on what drives people and organizations to behave differently in the sustainable age.
Casper Herler, Managing Partner at Borenius, opened the evening by sharing what sustainability can mean in a law firm. It can be for example systematic work around diversity, via partnerships.

The first keynote was held by Stephen Pain, Visiting Executive Fellow at Henley Business School, who also has experience in leading global companies, like Unilever.
Stephen emphasized that the world is interconnected, thus we need to understand sustainability – not only in companies but also on a personal level, basically everywhere. According to Stephen, the turning point at Unilever was when the approach was shifted from responsibility to a business case. It meant strategic choices. One of the most important ones was the aim to use Unilever’s brands as a force for good, powered by purpose and innovation. Unilever was a pioneer at the time and the strong focus on sustainability made them an attractive employer. No wonder, considering the huge portfolio of world-known brands the company has.
At Unilever, people were at the core. The company took developing its employees very seriously. Everyone worked on their own plan, “My own sense of purpose” and employees could also choose those SDG goals (UN’s Sustainable Development Goals) that were important for them.


Kati Ihamäki, SVP, Sustainability at Fiskars Group, held the second keynote. Kati talked about how to motivate and encourage people to implement sustainability in practice and reflected on successes and pain points on this journey through her extensive career in different sustainability roles.
In his speech, Stephen pointed out how important the past is – we should not forget it. In Fiskars Group the business is built on heritage. The company was founded in 1649 and is the oldest one in Finland (among stock listed companies). Its brands share a common heritage, design, and sustainability agenda.
All companies nowadays say that sustainability is at the core of everything they do. Is that so, do the actions come alive? It is not enough to only have sustainability reports. Kati raised these questions and said she is getting both tired and worried about the usage of the word “sustainability”. According to Kati, it is almost like a stamp that is put on top of everything without always having a clear explanation what it really means.

It is evident that there is a lot of pressure on companies from different directions. Everyone needs to demonstrate their sustainability. Kati thinks many companies are even a bit scared – often it seems no matter what you do or don’t do, you always get negative comments, e.g., for greenwashing. In Kati’s opinion, companies should cooperate more and remember that we are all in this together. There is no point in getting your sustainability agenda in the front line by mocking others. All companies should be better with acting on sustainability.
All businesses are also facing tightening regulation. Naturally, legislation and compliance are important but coping with these demands can be quite tough, especially for smaller companies. Before finishing, Kati reminded the audience that sustainability is a matter for everyone in the company. Not only the sustainability team. Making sustainability relevant for all employees and articulating it clearly, is key.
So, is there a business case for sustainability? When considering the times, we are living, we could answer with another question: What’s the alternative business case?

Jennika Rantanen - Henley Business School Finland

Jennika Rantanen

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