Passion, critical thinking and innovative business models – Eleven Swedish organisations demonstrate that success and sustainability belong together.

Our world is full of challenges: Climate change, food and energy security, waste, inequality and diminishing economic opportunities, to name a few. To prepare the managers of tomorrow, we organised a one-week study tour with the American University in Washington, DC.

Together with students of its Master of Sustainability Management programme we visited 11 inspiring organisations in Sweden. They demonstrated how and why they work sustainable. Proving, that helping society and the environment goes hand in hand with running a successful business.

How are these organisations different? Why are they successful?
Even in otherwise struggling industries? Let’s find out.


Sustainable hotels

Waste is money. This applies to energy, detergents, water, food …and ideas. It is simple: If you prevent waste, you have a more sustainable business. And a more profitable one.

Visiting Hobo hotelDuring our tour we stayed at Hobo, a new boutique hotel in the heart of Stockholm. They apply innovative ways to reduce waste:

No big buffets for breakfast but individual portions to reduce food waste. Cleaning rooms only when requested to reduce chemicals and housekeeping costs. No mini bars with bottled drinks but motivating guests to drink tap water and refill their own bottles.

But the most important thing? They understand that employees know more about the jobs they do than their managers. Empowered within their work, they are motivated and at their best. They naturally save time and money whilst increasing customer experience.

Now ask yourself:
How can you reduce ‘waste’ and leverage the power of your employees?


Sustainable cities

A sustainable city works for everyone: the economy, society and the environment. It must balance needs and connect people, life and work.

Visiting HagastadenStockholm is one of three lighthouse cities of the EU GrowSmarter project. They trial smart solutions to build a sustainable city of the future. Older buildings are retrofitted to the latest standards and technology. To reduce environmental impact and improve quality of life for residents.

Stockholm also builds entirely new urban areas, like Hagastaden. Not in the outskirts. But right in the heart of the city, reconnecting communities. Using land, reclaimed by decking over motorways and rail tracks that once cut through neighbourhoods. The new district has everything a modern city needs to be sustainable: places to live, work, study, shop, socialise and relax. Focus is on pedestrians, bikes and green space. The vision is to connect the city – and the people who live and work in it.

What can you do to connect your customers and improve their quality of life?


Sustainable energy

Energy must be reliable and clean. And locally produced to leverage synergies with district heating or cooling.

Inside a waste cogeneration plantMälarenergi in Västerås runs the biggest and most modern cogeneration plant in Europe. Municipal solid waste that cannot be reused or recycled is converted into electricity, heating and cooling.

They also utilise the waste of other countries. Every week, thousands of tons arrive by boat. Recyclable materials are separated for sale. The rest is converted to fuel for the power plant. They even recover waste gases, ashes and sludges to create valuable resources. The unique technology and efficiency makes Mälarenergi a global research destination within their sector.

But not only innovative energy production makes this organisation special. They motivate girls to work in the energy sector, support beekeepers, build fish ladders and have been publishing a sustainability report long before it became compulsory. Openness and best possible use of resources are their biggest success factors.

Have you identified all your resources?
And utilised them in the best way to create maximum value?


Sustainable technology and values

Food production, storage, transport, packaging, waste and health implications – all have significant impacts on society and the environment.

Plantagon urban farmingWe must produce high-quality healthy food close to where we consume it. Innovation company Plantagon thus challenges city planners to integrate sustainable food production. They offer a revolutionary solution: Closed system urban farms, combined with office buildings or on top of retail stores.

A closed system allows energy, water and waste to be reused and redistributed. This provides valuable resources for other uses in the same building and beyond. Being closed, the system also makes pesticides and herbicides unnecessary.

But Plantagon does not stop there. Their Companization model combines making profit with taking care of our planet and future generations. Going beyond sustainability, both principles have equal value in their constitution.

This model is set to change the way we live and work. Business as usual is over – as founder Hans Hassle puts it in his book of the same title.

Now think:
What could be your innovative solution to make the world a better place?


Sustainable farming

Always question conventional wisdom. Most of the time it doesn’t guarantee optimal outcome. Use common sense instead!

Sustainable animal farmingNibble Gårdsgris is the first climate certified pig farm in Sweden. Their goals are to improve animal welfare, enhance the nutritional composition of the meat and to reduce environmental impacts of farming. They work with two major Swedish universities to achieve this.

Professor Per Wallgren of the Swedish Veterinary Institute demonstrated how even organic rules can create problems. Sick or dead animals put a big strain on animal welfare, farmers’ finances and the environment. It’s important to strike a balance: Keeping pigs inside during harsh winter days and giving just the right amount of antibiotics when necessary – instead of letting them suffer or die. This is more sustainable in every sense.

But Nibble also builds a circular economy in miniature, producing almost all the feed themselves or with local farms. They in turn use the pigs’ manure to fertilise crops.

Their approach creates a superior product, saves resources long-term and builds trust with consumers.

How do you question conventional wisdom and use common sense to improve your products and services?


Sustainable packaging

You must understand the challenges along your entire value chain. Then innovate to solve the issues.

Sustainable packagingBillerudKorsnäs produce packaging from paper and cardboard. What makes them special is how they work with suppliers and customers to solve issues along their value chain. They take on responsibility for their own supply chain: From sustainable forestry to limiting use of chemicals and energy.

But the company not just thinks about their own products and actions in isolation. They challenge conventional packaging and see their solutions as part of a much bigger picture to solve real problems. And create customer value.

Examples of their innovative solutions are 100% recyclable and biodegradable paper bottles for carbonated soft drinks as a sustainable alternative to plastics. And dissolvable cement sacks that are thrown directly into the mixer – providing a cleaner, healthier and safer working environment whilst saving time and packaging waste.

Now think about yourself:
Do you know the challenges of your value chain and how to solve them?


Sustainable eating

Take the challenges of your industry and make them assets for your own success.

Dinner at Kalf and HansenKalf & Hansen, a small Swedish restaurant chain, challenge industry conventions. Their business is based on a fast food concept, offering low prices and high convenience. But they only use 100% organic, local, high-quality ingredients and cater for healthy lifestyles.

They approach challenges and limitations of their supply chain in innovative ways: Their menu always stays the same. But the ingredients change, based on what is in surplus supply, readily available and in season – and therefore cheap. Waste is eliminated by making today’s leftovers the stew of tomorrow. This all allows them to offer the highest quality at the lowest price, while customers experience variety.

Kalf & Hansen take industry challenges like price fluctuation, availability or waste and transform them into keys for success.

What are the challenges of your industry and how can you turn them to your favour?


Sustainable retail

Traditional retailers are struggling to transform their business as shoppers lose faith. Consumers question retailers’ intention to support healthy choices and care about small and local suppliers, employee welfare, society and the environment.

Visit at food retailer ParadisetParadiset is a growing supermarket chain focusing on organic and natural food. Many aspects make this retailer special: They have a passion for natural and healthy food, presented in a compelling store concept. Their employees are more than mere ‘shelf-replenishers’, being educated in key subjects like nutrition. Paradiset closely collaborate with local suppliers to source the best possible products.

Yet, the way they engage with their market and leverage the desire for health and sustainability is most impressive: In 2017 their crowd funding campaign generated over 2 Million Euros from more than 5,000 investors. In addition to shares in the business, funders also received 20 % discount in store for a year. This shows us how to win engaged shareholders and loyal customers.

So, how can you inspire and mobilise the crowd for your cause?


Sustainable innovation

What is the worst that can happen to your innovation? You invest time and money – and then it fails!

Visiting EricssonEricsson Garage is trying to prevent just that. It is Ericsson’s open innovation platform and knowledge incubator, based on lean start-up methodology.

The Garage works with internal and external customers, universities and start-ups to validate innovations and test their market opportunities.

The collaborative approach creates value for all: Customers, in need of innovative solutions, benefit from fast design and testing. Start-ups have access to coaching, technical expertise, business development support and a global network. Universities gain from research partnerships and support with student programs. Ericsson employees can strengthen their competence. They can accelerate their own ideas and engage with new areas.

Who could be your sparring partner to enhance your ideas?


Sustainable visions

Following your vision, passion and purpose can change your life …and the lives of others.

Vélosophy is a small Swedish designer bike brand. Their inspiring founder Jimmy Östholm already fell in love with bikes at an early age, when building one with his dad. He had the idea for his venture after realising what differences a bike makes in developing countries:

Bikes are more than a healthy and sustainable means of transport. They can be trucks, school buses, ambulances or a source of income. Compared to walking, bikes can carry 5 times the weight, cover 4 times the distance and save 3 hours per day.

The bikes Vélosophy sell, are mainly produced with recycled aluminium. For every sold bike, one is donated to a Ghanaian school girl. This means more time for education and better opportunities in life. Those bikes are made locally out of bamboo, supporting local growers and manufacturers.

In 2017, Vélosophy won a European Parliament award for the most innovative circular economy start-up. Together with Nespresso they now explore the opportunity to make bikes out of recycled coffee pods.

When speaking with Jimmy, you immediately feel: everything he says and does is 100% genuine. He lives his passion every moment of his life.

Time to reflect:
What is your passion and how can you use it to change the world?


Sustainable future

More and more organisations realise, they must change the way they do business. For a successful and sustainable future. Our hosts in Sweden are at the forefront of this development.

But what does the future bring? The next generation of managers hold the answers.

Rarely have I seen more dedicated, passionate and well-prepared participants than our students. They connected the dots between the different workshops. Applied critical thinking. Challenged not only our hosts but their own understanding of the world. Seeing that everything is connected. That every organisation has its impact. And no one can thrive or exist on its own.

If these are the managers of tomorrow, we need not be afraid. We will indeed have a bright and sustainable future.


Sustainable success factors

Time for a final summary and to reflect. What did we learn during our tour? What capabilities make an organisation sustainable and successful?

  • Challenge conventional thinking to re-invent your industry
  • Scrutinise all aspects of your own organisation
  • Reduce waste: Identify and utilise all your resources to create maximum value
  • Create solutions and business models based on real pain points
  • Offer and clearly communicate real customer value
  • Engage with your stakeholders and mobilise them for your cause
  • Collaborate with others to use synergies – across markets and industries
  • Empower your employees to grow and be their best
  • Have a long-term goal, know your first steps and get going
  • Be open to meet new people, learn from them and share your own experiences
  • Always be passionate and proud of what you are doing


This article was first published on LinkedIn Pulse on 28 June 2018. Read the original article and share your own thoughts and experiences.