Alumnus Leen Zevenbergen: ‘I believe that business leaders are the changemakers of the world’
‘The Champions League of sustainable entrepreneurship’, is what Unilever CEO Paul Polman said about B-Corp. It is the largest sustainable business network on earth, with more than 70,000 enterprises connected. The chairman of B-Lab Europe is an Erasmus University alumnus: Leen Zevenbergen. He was one of the speakers during World of Business, last April 3rd. We spoke to him about the importance of leading companies with social and environmental responsibility.
Is it nice to be back on campus?
‘Yes I have good memories of this place, it is nice to reminisce. I graduated in 1983. In those days, every economy student wanted to work at a big company. Working for Shell or Unilever was the best you could get.
But there were hardly any jobs available, we graduated in the middle of the crisis. That’s why I eventually decided to study Accountancy. After graduation I was an accountant for one year at Philips, but I found it very boring. Accountancy is about the past – about last year, and I’d rather think about the future. So that’s why I decided to start my own business; the first Dutch Artifical Intelligence Company, called Bolesian. That company still exists. Seven years later I sold it, and started another one. Starting new companies was what I really enjoyed. In total, I’ve founded 21 start-ups up until today. Some of them in the United States, as I moved to Silicon Valley shortly after starting the virtual reality business.’
Isn’t starting a new company every year boring in its own way?
‘True, I wanted to do more than just create start-ups. In 1987 in the United States a totally new sort of entrepreneur was on the rise. Ice cream maker Ben Cohen of Ben&Jerry’s is a good example. He said, ‘Leading a business is not just about making yourself rich, it’s also about doing something good for your environment.’ Because I was highly interested in this vision, I joined the Social Venture Network and I became chairman of Social Venture Network Europe.
A B-Corp as a legal form of a company, was created 10 years ago. A B-Corp is a ‘benefit corporation’. In the United States it’s against the law for a company to include in their Statutes that other things than turning a profit are important. Like, if you care about the loans of your employers – that is punishable. Starting a B-Corp was the way to avoid this strange shareholder-centric rule. I introduced the B-Corp-model to Europe, and now I’m chairman. Nowadays, it’s the most used assessment for companies worldwide who want to operate in a sustainable and responsible way. The requirements are very high: a company has to be sustainable at every layer to become a B-Corp, from fair loans, to every detail of the production process, even to the level of the type of toilet cleaner they use in their buildings. It is a holistic approach to sustainability.’
'Combining turning a profit with sustainability goals is not a problem at all. The fact that a big company such as Danone wants to make the switch is good news. Perhaps they will encourage other multinationals to come along.'
How many B-Corps are there?
'86,000 companies are using the so-called BIA (Benefit Impact Assesment) of B-Lab. This is the most widely used Impact Assesment in the world. 2,500 of them are full B-Corps, who meet all requirements. Ben&Jerry’s, of course, is a B-Corp, and also, for example, the outdoor brand Patagonia. Tonys Chocolonely, Dopper, Wakawaka, Solarus and OntheRocks are Dutch examples of B-Corps. Danone Europe – you know, the yoghurt company – is on its way to become a B-Corp. Their CEO wants to change every aspect of the business to become sustainable at every layer – country by country. They’ll begin in Spain, where the company started. This inspires me, because Danone is a very large company, they have a sales volume of 1,2 billion Euros a year. Danone US just last week became a B-Corp, the largest in the world so far.’
That’s great news. Then again, 2,500 companies worldwide isn’t very much… isn’t it going too slow?
‘Yes, it’s a slow process, the movement grows organically slow. Maybe too slow, maybe we need gamechangers like natural disasters to realize the importance of taking care of the planet - I don’t know. There was never enough money to build the Deltawerken – until the flood came. And then suddenly there was enough money.’
So you are waiting for disasters to happen?
’86,000 companies – or 2,500 companies – compared to the hundreds of millions of companies that exist worldwide is not the change we are waiting for, it is just a fraction. And the opponents have way more money. An American company called Koch Industries, in charge of many polluting industries, has a budget of 300 million dollar a year available only for lobbying, so they can block rules and regulations that aim to impede their polluting activities. The whole budget of all B-Corps worldwide together does not even match the lobbying budget of that one company.’
Why do you still continue, and how do you stay inspired with these damning facts?
‘What else can I do but continue? Doing nothing won’t make it better. I still believe that companies and business leaders are the changemakers of the world, not governments. Combining turning a profit with sustainability goals is not a problem at all. The fact that a big company such as Danone wants to make the switch is good news. Perhaps they will encourage other multinationals to come along.
More and more people are getting interested in sustainable business models. I teach at Stanford University and Oxford University and they are very excited about this theme. It’s already become part of the business curriculum. Another positive example: Yale University in the United States will remit a student’s complete tuition debt (approximately sixty thousand Euros) if he or she agrees to work for a B-Corp after graduation. A cool initiative that stimulates alumni to care.
Entrepreneurs who want to make the change and who care about the planet – since we have only one – inspire me. I hope that in ten years time CEOs can no longer get away with running polluting businesses – simply because people will ask too many critical questions. Eventually, change will be inevitable.’