“Just dare!”: An interview with Yoeri van Alteren
Yoeri van Alteren is an entrepreneur and the founder of DuurzaamBedrijfsleven, which will soon be named Change Inc. Prior to this, he worked at van Gansewinkel as a commercial director. His work focuses on informing, inspiring and connecting the sustainable frontrunners of the Dutch economy.
Why this path?
While I was working at Van Gansewinkel, I noticed that it was very important to consider the environment, while also adding an important element: making profit. Therefore, I aim for a future economy that meets the demands of our contemporary world, in which sustainability and innovation become a requirement and are interconnected. I saw a lot of business opportunities in sustainable entrepreneurship. From this conviction, my company was born, which split off to Duurzaambedrijfsleven in 2012. This year, this platform will become Change Inc.
What’s the biggest change in sustainability you’ve noticed over the last 10 years?
During my first years as an entrepreneur, I realized that businesses were very much compliance-driven. Sustainability back then was mainly about meeting very basic requirements and ticking the required boxes. At that time, a lot of companies claimed in their communications that sustainability had always been in the DNA of the company, all while their business operations were actually nothing like that. Now, a couple of years later, companies are starting to actually look for more visible sustainable alternatives in their business operations, for example by using alternative energy sources. And there is still so much more potential. What I see is that people are often very pessimistic, especially regarding the pace of change. However, I am quite positive. We do see exponential growth in the field of sustainability. So many companies are making great strides forward. We should just not let the momentum pass.
Will the COVID-19 crisis increase this momentum or slow it down?
I don’t believe that COVID-19 accelerates the innovation revolution regarding sustainability. I do think the awareness that things really have to change is growing. At the same time, however, companies have to limit their costs when the business is falling back due to the COVID-19 crisis. This causes a focus on short-term effects and income. The current situation makes it less attractive for companies to invest in long-term innovations that don’t immediately pay off, which could slow down sustainability progress. This is not very surprising, and it is a very difficult choice to make for companies. People don’t necessarily connect COVID-19 to the overall global problems that already existed. However, in my opinion, it would be good to pay more attention to the bigger picture and COVID-19 is a perfect moment to reflect and, for example, to reconsider globalization: wouldn’t it be great to see how particular products could be produced locally, for example?
Does the corporate world feel the urgency to become more sustainable?
Of course, there are many different types of companies, who are all changing at their own speed. Overall, people have the awareness that something needs to change. But the question remains; how exactly will these changes be executed? And that is what I love about my company, DuurzaamBedrijfsleven. We showcase companies that are already taking steps forward, and explain how they became more sustainable and innovative in a scalable way, to inspire other companies. Sometimes just with small steps – it does not have to be all perfect at once.
What about consumers – what role do you see for them?
It takes some time for the consumer to make sustainable choices that are intrinsically motivated. Therefore, looking at the total playing field of corporations, government, and scientists, I believe significant change will only happen when it’s initiated by companies and entrepreneurs. Most consumers are still led by marketing and budget considerations. Therefore, product innovations will be adapted by consumers when a company is able to not only make a product more sustainable, but also to maintain an attractive price. Sustainable products should never be much more expensive than their less sustainable counterparts. We’ve got extensive marketing knowledge, which I believe should be used to better promote sustainable products. That is the way to encourage consumers to make sustainable purchases. The vegan plant balls that Ikea just launched are a great example. These plant balls taste just like IKEA’s iconic meatballs but are totally vegan, making them a more sustainable alternative. IKEA has invested a lot in promoting its plant balls to consumers. In addition, the plant balls are cheaper than their original meatballs. In fact, there are the cheapest dish on IKEA’s menu - which ensures that IKEA’s customers will see its meat alternatives as an easy, desirable, and affordable choice.
What are some other examples of impactful companies?
There are so many great, inspiring examples of companies that are reshaping their business. Some innovations are clearly visible to the public, while there are also companies that are reshaping business in ways that are less visible on the surface.
An example of one the frontrunners is the science company DSM. They have been evolving constantly, always seeking new innovations. They have built many product groups, all focused on having a sustainable impact, ranging from sustainable paint products to new food additives for cows that reduce methane emissions. Within DSM, there is an intrinsic urge to constantly search for innovations, which makes them successful in all kinds of industries.
A second example I would like to mention is the banking sector. This sector used to be known for its sole or primary focus on making money. But we have seen how sustainability is becoming increasingly important here. Banks review their policies and investments with a new focus on the environment – a focus their clients believe to be important as well. A few years from now, you won’t be able to get a loan or investment for projects that are not sustainable or relevant in society.
These examples show that it is not about doing everything 100 percent correctly. A lot of companies act well on different elements already. Each innovation can be an inspiring showcase for other companies.
With all the great developments and scalable initiatives that you have come across over the years – is there one that stands out as a particularly good example of shaping the future?
What really appeals to me is the way in which beer brand Gulpener is rapidly making its business more sustainable. They really take an integral approach to sustainability. Gulpener recently put the most sustainable brewing house in Europe into operation. It contains truly groundbreaking innovations that reduce energy consumption by 75 percent. By 2030, they aim to be climate-neutral. Gulpener only uses locally grown hops in its brewery, and actively involves employees in all of their plans. To me, Gulpener really is one of the frontrunners of our future economy.
In conclusion, what should organizations do today to be ready for the future?
Stay curious about developments outside your own sector – not only those related to direct competitors. Keep an open mind, with your eyes on the future, and you will still be a successful company in 10 years' time. Just dare!
Interviewer: Kiran Hofker