Feike Sijbesma on inspiring ‘fence sitters’ to become climate leaders

By Climate Champions | October 9, 2023

At Climate Week NYC, the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Ambition Summit provided a platform for the “first movers and doers” that are responding to the call for accelerated climate action.

To understand how to shape a transformation mindset, we spoke with High-Level Champions Global Ambassador, Feike Sijbesma. Feike led the metamorphosis of Royal DSM from a bulk-chemical company into a purpose driven science-based company, focused on nutrition, health and sustainable living. He also co-chairs the Global Center on Climate Adaptation (GCA).

What’s the current state of play of corporate climate action?

Climate change is one of the major challenges faced by mankind – and as the engines of our economies, companies have a vital role to play in driving the transition to a net zero, nature positive world. Increasingly, I’m seeing that companies are stepping up to this responsibility, shown through the increased commitments to curb emissions to net zero by 2050, plus to halve emissions by 2030. 

There’s much work to be done to strengthen existing targets. But, overall, corporate disclosure is rising, with both mandatory and voluntary standards, such as TCFD and ISSB, respectively, increasing accountability.

What approaches are companies taking to reduce their impact on the planet?

Collaboration between companies is opening up numerous innovative ways to decarbonize global value chains. 

For example, the CEO Climate Leaders Alliance is a group of 125 major global companies which, through stimulating and inspiring each other, SBTi linked target-setting and  knowledge-sharing are uncovering myriad new ways of turning their climate promises into reality. 

Of course companies reduce their own emissions by cleaner processes, but also look for greener alternative energy sources for their operations. On top: energy savings are important as well.

Next to this, circularity is a massive area of opportunity. It’s an approach to (re-)designing, producing, and consuming goods to minimize waste, maximize reuse and recycling – therefore reducing the strain on resources. In essence, it’s good for business and the planet. 

Companies can only make their businesses more circular through collaboration with other companies in their value chain. For example, sometimes a company must redesign the way that raw materials enter the beginning of the value chain to be able to increase recycling at the other end. So, companies need to work transparently with their suppliers, as well as with fellow industry players, to develop new technologies, and approaches. Of course, companies need to be careful to avoid infringing on anti-trust laws, but in most cases new approaches are implemented in tandem with legal teams, so this is not a risk.

It is important that companies also anchor sustainability and reducing emissions in their businesses: that would make sustainability more sustainable.

Have you got any examples of these business models in action?

The company I led in the past, DSM, has many examples of this. One is Bovaer, or ‘Clean Cow’ in the past – a new feed supplement that safely suppresses the enzyme that combines hydrogen and carbon to produce methane, to significantly reduce the environmental footprint of cows, one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. 

DSM is collaborating on this across the value chain to introduce this. For example, DSM is working  with food producers, such as dairy companies, to encourage its adoption in farms around the world to reduce their emissions. 

How can we expand the ‘first movers and doers’ in the climate space?

Leadership is an important topic. As with any development in the world – whether in business or government, there is always a relatively small group of leaders. And there’s a group of laggards. And there’s a large group of people who sit still a bit on the fence in between. 

The major conferences, like New York Climate Week, and COP and Davos, are important moments for business and governments to come together to shape the conditions for new leaders to step up. It’s vital that the leaders of today stay focused on bringing the larger group of ‘not so fast movers, or a bit of fence sitters’ with them by sharing results with industry peers. There are many actions companies can take. For example, new governance systems can be embedded into boards, such as aligning financial and remuneration targets with climate action. Most important: anchor it in your business and don’t see it as CSR, only.

In this way, the fence sitters come to understand that embedding sustainability is not a cost or an ‘add-on’, but it’s actually a genuine route to future proofing a company. Once potential leaders have witnessed the evidence, then it’s a question of encouraging them to take the first step towards climate leadership.

How can leaders foster a culture of transformation?

To make organisations more sustainable, the leaders need to set the direction, shape the vision and steer action. Leaders must ensure that internally the vision is well understood and connected across the business, so that people understand their role. It’s essential for leaders to take their people with them on the journey.  

Leaders should also ensure that sustainability is anchored at the heart of the business. It should not only exist at the extreme ends of the company. Sustainability shouldn’t just exist in the annual sustainability report, on the edges, or for the top of the organisation for the CEO to present on stage. It should be anchored at the core, anchored with core competencies of companies. 

Sustainability should also be central to the way that companies make money. Leaders should integrate financial economic success with doing good for the world. By doing so, companies futureproof themselves. So, leaders need to align the vision with the organisation, explain it, and bring the whole organisation alone. It takes a lot of effort, but once it is set it is long lasting. In other words: doing well (financially/economically) by doing good (for the world).

As the co-chair for the Global Centre of Adaptation, how can business also play a role in advancing resilience?

Nowadays we talk about climate change in two different ways. One is mitigation – trying to prevent our world heating up, by reducing emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. But on the other hand, the IPCC reports are clear that we have already locked in a certain amount of warming of the planet. That means in parallel to mitigation – not instead of, we also need to scale adaptation.

This is the focus of the Global Center of Adaptation (GCA). Our priorities cover a range of areas, for example, we help countries to develop best practices for growing their crops during periods of severe drought, or flooding. Or we look at ways of helping vulnerable countries to meet their water needs, or to protect and improve their infrastructure and cities from extreme weather. 

Many global supply chains exist in climate vulnerable countries, so by developing and sharing best practices companies can play a vital role in helping regions to adapt to current climate risk, as well as mitigating future emissions in parallel. 

Companies can contribute to this with their technologies (e.g. more resilient seeds). But companies might also make their own operations risk assessment and adapt and prevent shut down by supply chain disruptions or flooding, etc.

How would you summarize the climate challenge ahead?

Climate is a huge challenge for mankind – it will influence people today and generations to come. We all have a responsibility – as governments, as companies, as civil society to step up. I am confident with the rate of advancement of innovation, coupled with a collaborative mindset, we can curtail and adapt to climate change.

It’s vital that we go in this direction together. The argument for inaction usually comes from a place of uncertainty about whether the transition will cost money and jobs, especially for poor or even middle income people. But by the same token, many regions, such as Africa and South Asia, are already facing the effects of climate change, and can’t provide their own food supply anymore – and so, there is a major impetus to accelerate action in emerging and developing economies. 

Overall, it’s clear that the burden of climate change should be distributed amongst the strongest shoulders – otherwise we will only face resistance. So we need a fair and inclusive approach, also regarding the bill of all of this. Lastly, shareholders need to also take responsibility, by stimulating change in the companies that they have invested in. 

If we can work together with different stakeholders, across industries to meet different interests then I’m sure we can succeed. We have no choice, since: No one can be successful in a world that fails. 

About Feike Sijbesma

Feike Sijbesma, CEO Royal DSM from 2007 till 2020, transformed DSM from a bulk-chemical company into a purpose driven science-based company, focused on nutrition, health and sustainable living.

Sijbesma is DSM’s Honorary Chairman; Royal Philips Chairman, and Unilever board member. 

Feike is co-chair Global Center on Climate Adaptation, World Bank Climate Leader (carbon pricing). Feike is co-chair CEO Climate Leaders Alliance and IMF advisory board member, and advisor of Africa Improved Foods and The Ocean Cleanup.

Mr. Sijbesma has been awarded UN Humanitarian of the Year; received honorary doctorates from Maastricht and Groningen University; was listed on Fortune’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders, and the world’s 100 most successful CEOs by Harvard Business Review. Mr. Sijbesma studied molecular biology and business administration.

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