Robert Strand, assistant professor of leadership and sustainability at the Copenhagen Business School and director of the Nordic Network for Sustainability, delivered his Frontiers in the Environment lecture about the Scandinavian approach to sustainability in the private sector on April 23 on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus.
"You look at what we're teaching business school students and what business leaders are essentially going out and doing is saying, 'I'm going to go and get mine,'" Strand said. "The public picks up on this and sees corporations as going out and getting theirs and maybe not necessarily serving the common good and the well-being of society."
Strand attributes Scandinavian companies' sustainability leadership to a business model that emphasizes cooperation over competition. He even provides the example of Swedish fashion giant H&M, who refers to other clothing companies as "industry peers" rather than "competitors." The different terminology may seem subtle, but it makes a difference.
"This little shift in language is really indicative of a cooperative approach," he said, "and when we look at some of the greatest challenges that we have, often times we need so-called competitors to come together in pre-competitive spaces and say, 'What are we going to do about issues of climate change? What are we going to do about issues of child labor?'
"To the degree that companies and the businesspeople within them are using language like 'competitors,' it prevents the opportunity for engagement in areas that aren't competitive. I would argue that child labor and climate change aren't necessarily issues where we should be in competition but should be things that we come together and discuss."
Integrating this business model in the United States is challenging, but it's already beginning in some forward-thinking corporations. The key is to educate the business leaders of tomorrow on this cooperative business approach. To accomplish this, Strand leads a group of MBA students--including some enrolled at University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management--on a trip to Scandinavia.
"A lot of these students are part time MBAs who work with companies in the Twin Cities area like Target, Best Buy, General Mills and the like," Strand said. "It's very interesting to see the different perspective those students have when they come back because they see effective cooperation as being the underpinnings of business as opposed to this notion that business is fundamentally about war, about competition."
So what should other corporations take away from successful Scandinavian companies? According to Strand, the most important lesson is that when it comes to sustainability, teamwork is more effective than cutthroat competition.
"I would argue cooperation between companies and their stakeholders is increasingly necessary for the social and environmental sustainability of the world," he said. "Sustainability challenges that we all face are simply too big and too urgent for any single actor to effectively address alone.
"I would argue that we need to shift focus from achieving competitive advantage to recognizing that sustainability challenges actually represent opportunities for businesses also, so let's focus on how do companies try to encourage business students to say, 'How do you achieve a cooperative advantage?' This can help to change the conversation and the mindset. And finally, from my experiences I would see that inspiration for effective cooperation may be prosperously drawn from Scandinavia."
Watch Strand's full presentation online.
John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.