President of the Board at Eurosif

“We live in a businessminded world, and companies have to make profit. But at the same time, business also needs a soul, which is expressed through their values and ideals. Without a soul, a company cannot truly thrive.”

EMG spoke with Giuseppe van der Helm about his work with Eurosif and the VBDO, and his relentless passion for putting real meaning into the concept of stockholder values.

We are keen to hear how you got to where you are today, and how you came to your view on the importance of Corporate Social responsibility in business.

It was a gradual transition. I had been working at Valvoline Europe for several years, as president. I had a good salary, a nice car, and the company was doing just fine. But somehow in the midst of this,

I felt something was not right. It’s not that the job was bad, but I just found myself starting to ask some simple questions: Is this it? Am I really working on something meaningful? Of course I was immediately aware that there would be some heavy consequences if I left Valvoline. It was not a decision I took lightly, and I discussed it extensively with several people close to me. However, one year later, I left the company and went on a trip around the world. I ended up sitting on a lovely beach somewhere all by myself, and thinking what I wanted to do next. Perhaps bizarrely, I decided to study theology!

I enjoyed this study, but then the questions started coming again: What am I going to do now? How do I move forward? Who wants a business guy with a theology degree – or a theologian with business experience?? I ultimately came to the realization that this study and my life experience together was a benefit and an asset. Put simply, I wanted to improve the world. I am an idealistic person and not ashamed to say that. But I also know how to run a business. We live in a businessminded world, and companies have to make profit. But at the same time, business also needs a soul, which is expressed through their values and ideals. Without a soul, a company cannot truly thrive. Otherwise, if you only concern yourself with creating value for shareholders, you eventually come to a point where you ask: What is the shareholder valuing? Is it just profit for profit’s sake? It’s my firm belief that when a company follows ideals of sustainability the rewards are much larger and longer lasting. One can then be proud and say: This is what I am meant to be doing, and how I impact the lives of other people! It is why I’m now proud to be doing these roles with VBDO and Eurosif.

What do you think are the greatest challenges for new leaders?

There are so many things. As a planet, we are facing a global food crisis. The forecast is that we will need to produce the same amount of food in the next 50 years as we produced in the last 5000 years, so that’s quite a challenge. Then there are crises in energy and water, the raw material crisis, the climate crisis – these things will not just go away quietly. In our world things are shifting very rapidly, and there will be big consequences.

Something that I have been finding increasingly encouraging however, is the power and capacity that large companies do have to address these issues. Many people complain about large multinational corporations because they have enormous power, but it’s that same power that can make a dramatic positive difference in the world.

Consider world trade, for instance. Around 50 percent of world trade – 50 percent! – is done within these multinational companies. If you compare that to the power of countries, multinationals are clearly becoming much more influential, because they have the capability to move money across the world in seconds, and achieve things in the financial sector so much more quickly than countries can.

The biggest issue of course is how to hold these companies accountable for sustainability and CSR. But who can hold those people accountable? If, for example, you are in Africa, living with the consequences of activities by an oil company, who do you go to? Who gives you access to justice? The answer may lie in international legislation, established by the United Nations for example, that puts pressure on these countries to address sustainability. These things will take time obviously, but we need to get to a situation where there’s more equality and cooperation between several countries on these issues.

Ensuring large multinationals abide by common regulations is a crucial step, but because that will take a long time, we need to already now work on helping large companies find their soul. Ethics need to be championed, and we should also work on developing their conscience, and their commitment to justice – both social and environmental justice. So who can best help with this? It’s the stakeholders. These are people who are concerned about the company, and want the best for the company because in helping them they are helping themselves. If you don’t know the answer yourself, don’t sit and wait. Use the help that is out there. Use your stakeholders’ motivation, their knowledge, their thinking, their ideals and their conscience.

To download the complete article in PDF click:  Finding the Soul of Business in Sustainability