Short Film | 13:53 mins read

Portrait of

Claus Stig Pedersen


Hvide Sande, Denmark

Still photography by

Adam Morris Philp

Interviewed by

Katrine Philp

Sustainability in Business

A conversation with Claus Stig Pedersen: a pioneer in sustainable business strategies.

“I’ve worked in business for more than 25 years now, seeking to drive sustainability inside and outside of business, and many times I’ve reflected on what is really the role of business in society.”

Claus Stig Pedersen

Claus Stig Pedersen led sustainability in Novozymes for 15 years being responsible for sustainability globally. Before that he led sustainability for 10 years in Hartman Packaging.

He has advised some of the world’s largest companies including Walmart, Unilever, Procter and Gamble, and Trane Technologies on the journey to integrate sustainability into their business processes.

He is a professor at the University of Aalborg where he teaches students about sustainability and strategy. In 2016, Claus received the great honour of being named SG Pioneer – a pioneer for the UN global goal by the UN in the General Assembly Hall by the Secretary-General Ban Ki moon.

Claus, please introduce yourself

I have been working with sustainability since my early twenties. I’m married to Annette and together we have two kids, and we live in a forest outside Copenhagen next to a big lake.

The outdoors and nature means a lot to us. So, we spend a lot of time in the forest, looking for mushrooms, cooking food and doing all kinds of things.

My entire career has been dedicated to helping companies not to become the best in the world, but to become the best for the world and to make even better profits by doing the right things for people and planet.

How did you get interested in sustainability?

My interest in sustainability started when I took a sabbatical from my chemical engineer studies at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).

I was running around in laboratories and I was not sure it was my life’s purpose to be a chemical engineer. So, I took some time off to reflect on things and I took my surfboard and travelled to Indonesia.

I found some very good wave spots and did a lot of surfing. But I also saw pollution on the beaches. I saw oceans filled with plastics and I saw kids playing in polluted pits.

I saw how the environment was being destroyed, how people’s lives were impacted negatively and how it was a hopeless situation for many of these people to change the situation they were in. That made me very sad and upset.

On my return to Denmark, I joined Greenpeace and looked into politics to see if I could make a difference in these organizations.

But I also realized that if I had to make a really big impact, then it had to come from the same source as the problems, which were businesses. I cut my hair, put on a suit, and I joined the world of business.

I have been here ever since trying to find out how can you make the world a better place with all the powers and capacities of business.

Now is the time to do even more because the world needs solutions and many of these solutions needs to come from business.

So, the opportunity to profit from doing the right things for people, to do the right things for the environment has never been better than they are right now.

I feel and see businesses all over the world that are ready for this. And that brings a lot of hope.

Business is one of the strongest forces on this planet. I’ve worked in business for more than 25 years now, driving sustainability inside and outside of business, and many times I’ve reflected on what is actually the role of business in society.

What is the role of business?

To me, the biggest needs of mankind are all about sustainability. It’s about health. It’s about food. It’s about good quality of life. It’s about development and growth. We have a situation where environments are being broken down rapidly. We have a situation where many people around the world don’t have what they need to live a good life. And inequality is exploding. I think it’s fair to say that business has not delivered a sustainable world and that the classic capitalistic model has failed to deliver such a planet. Business now has a big challenge to reinvent its way of solving the challenges of meeting people’s needs.

Then why is it that businesses have not yet been able to make these bridges between the real needs of people and a business model that can generate the profits that business seeks? That is the problem we have had for a long time and those are the solutions we need to find and develop and accelerate in the future.

Business has to integrate sustainability much deeper into their strategies, into their production processes, into the products and services they deliver to people. If they fail to do that, they’re not delivering to the real needs of people in a long-term perspective.

What are the challenges that we face now and will face in the future?

The sustainability challenges are numerous and they look very different. If I were to mention the top three challenges I believe we have to take seriously now and in the future, it would firstly be climate change. It’s so obvious that climate change is manmade and that it has devastating consequences all over the world.

The second thing I would mention, which may be even more severe than climate change and is much more complicated and much less understood, is biodiversity. We see a mass extinction of species all over the world. We see a big threat that our ecosystems will collapse. And the consequences of this will be very difficult to predict.

The only thing we know now is that it will bring very serious consequences. And last but not least, on the social side of things, inequality in the world is growing. That is a very serious threat to stability, because if you don’t have money to buy the food or the clothes you need or send your children to school, what do you do as a human being? You become desperate. That is the risk we are facing right now. With the growing inequality people around the world will start destabilizing the whole system because of this desperate situation.

I dare almost not imagine what will happen when Africa in 30 years have doubled its population if they don’t have any jobs, what will they do?

What happened in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012?

In 2012, I was in Rio de Janeiro. Business was invited to join the UN Earth Summit. That was very unusual since historically UN has not been very welcoming to business people, because in many parts of the world business was seen as the problem maker, where organisations come in and destroy the environment and take the resources and leave people on the streets. The UN system in general was not very positive toward business.

However, there was a recognition at the highest level of the UN that if you did not involve business in the sustainable development agenda, it would fail because many of the challenges we were facing in the world linked to pollution, overconsumption, job creation and many other challenges related to business. Solutions had to come from business. So, the UN opened their doors to business formally and invited business to join the so-called open working groups. Open working groups were put together with a three-year horizon to take part in developing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. For three years, the world’s largest consensus process took place where an army of non-governmental organisations and an army of business leaders, participated in discussions and meetings and making reports. 193 countries agreed on the UN Sustainable Development Goals from 2015 to 2030. A 15-year period for developing and improving many challenges on our planet.

Please describe the UN Sustainable Development Goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals consist of 17 goals, supplemented with 169 targets and thousands of indicators to guide the world of policymakers, investors, businesses, consumer groups, and NGOs. They inspire and advise investors where to put the money because this is what we want to invest in for the future. They advise business in terms of what we should innovate solutions for. What are the big challenges in the future that we take part in solving.

The sustainability challenges we are facing are really big and it’s clear that these challenges cannot be met by governments, business, investors or consumers alone. We can only secure a sustainable development of our planet if we work together. Working together has a lot more impact if we are working together towards the same goals.

That is exactly what the global goals are designed to target. They are designed to align all the forces on this planet that needs to work together to secure sustainable development.

How important is collaboration across industries? How can we help each other and thereby also nature and our planet?

The challenges and problems we are facing in sustainability are so complex and so big that no one can solve them alone. It’s not only up to governments. It’s not only about businesses, investors, or consumers. It’s the problems we all face and we have to work together to solve them.

Partnerships are key and can be many things. It can be business to business partnerships where we work together over a long period of time, invest in radical innovation that can bring completely new and better solutions to the market than we were able to do alone without collaboration. It can be partnerships between businesses and governments. We’ve seen that in Denmark, where we have the climate partnerships, where governments and business groups work together to identify what is needed in terms of regulatory changes to accelerate climate solutions.

Increasingly NGO´s are willing to form partnerships with businesses and that´s a great opportunity for mutual learning, innovation and for driving better solutions. In business we have our investors to take care of. NGOs have their members, but in many cases we share the same goals for a better world and there are many areas for collaboration.

Why don’t we just create a sustainable development of our societies?

Because of the “human factor” it’s easier said, than done. If I were to mention the top three partners in our system that, together, could build a sustainable world, it would be the consumers, the governments and business. Ultimately, it’s the consumers who decide what products we have in the market and what products are to be produced by the businesses. The challenge is that consumers, as a group, are a highly un-organized. It’s not easy to understand what the consumer group actually wants, what they’re willing to pay for and what businesses should deliver.

Consumers, are also the voters, who collectively decide which governments we have in place. However, due to many short and longterm conflicting interests between consumers, its complicated to predict and to steer election outcomes in a more sustainable direction.

The government has a key role in educating the consumers. Governments should ensure that consumers understand what sustainable development is, why it’s important to them and how they can change their behaviour in favour of sustainable development. Another key role of government is to regulate business. Make sure that businesses understand what society needs and wants. Make sure that it increasingly becomes more expensive to do the wrong things and more profitable and attractive to do the right things, for example by installing a CO2 taxation and regulation that motivate decarbonization, so that the right businesses become the most successful businesses.

Business’ role is to comply with the regulations from government, but also to engage with government and to inspire them about what is possible, what innovations we can deliver that can bring better products to consumers that are better for the environment. And to innovate new products and solutions that consumers are interested in and willing to buy.

Those three players – consumers, governments, and businesses can, if they want, create a sustainable development of our societies. The challenge is to make them want the same thing at the same time and to actually make it happen. But I’m hopeful that it’s possible and that it will happen when we collaborate more, communicate more, and drive the right things forward together.

Is there any hope? Can technology save our planet or what is it?

What do we need to save our planet? That’s a question I’ve been asked many times and I don’t know if I have a good answer but let me try. I fundamentally believe that we have all the knowledge we need. We also have all the money we need. And we also have most of the technology we need to create a sustainable world.

But what we don’t have seems to be the will to use all these powers, knowledge, money and technology in the right way. Because we don’t have a sustainable world, that much is clear.

Why don’t we have that? Obviously, we lack the will to apply all these solutions we already have. We lack the will to do it at the political level. We lack the will to do it at business leaders’ level. And apparently we also lack the will to do it at consumer level. It seems like everybody is waiting for the others to act and that’s not working. Naturally, it has to change. The question is, is there any hope that changes will come?

I see many changes at political level. I see many changes at business level. But the most change I actually see is amongst the younger part of our population. You see many of these youth movements around the world really starting to influence politics, influence consumer behaviour and other things we need to see change in going forward. In a few years’ time many of these young people will have voting rights and will probably become leaders in business or in politics. If they just maintain half of all the good ideas and good intentions they have today, then we are set for a very different future. So, I’m absolutely hopeful that we will have a sustainable development of our world and it will be a different world than we have today, but it will certainly be a better one.

What are the business drivers for sustainability?

The business drivers for sustainability can be viewed in many different ways. Regulatory pressures that makes the cost of pollution higher are easy to understand for business and help drive the sustainability agenda in business.

However, there are many other business drivers for sustainability that in many cases are overlooked by business . The world is increasingly transparent and the value of being seen as a company that is part of the solution and not part of the problem is already high and growing fast. That has an impact on how you are seen in the local community. It has an impact on how you are seen by policymakers and regulators in the markets of the country you are part of if you are to be invited in as a constructive partner for the future. It has an impact on your attractiveness to the best talent because the best talent want to work for good companies that do good for the community and the society they are part of and to do good for you as an individual. I think it’s very important to think about all the different currencies that sustainability returns to you as a company when you plan and prioritize your ambition level for the next step.

Is it relevant for all companies to transform into more sustainable businesses?

Sustainability is a very transformative agenda. It’s driven by some very powerful megatrends. Everything we know today will change in the coming decades. I often get the question, is this relevant to all companies and businesses? And the obvious answer is yes. It’s absolutely strategically relevant to all companies on this planet.

There are companies that already produce many great solutions that contribute to a sustainable development and those companies have to find out how they can accelerate their business development so that they can leverage the powers and the sustainability transformative agenda to sell more of their products.

It’s great to be in this position. Many other companies are in more difficult situations. Many companies produce products or solutions that contribute to more problems than positive contributions to sustainable development. Those companies will be under increasing pressure, and those companies should take this very seriously and reflect deeply on what we are doing today. What are our core competencies and could these be used to transform our business into completely new products and solutions that are much more relevant in the future, so we can be a contributor to solutions and not a contributor to problems in the world.

We’ve seen several big oil and gas companies on this journey with Ørsted in Denmark as one of the very prominent examples of a company in this industry transforming itself based on the core competence to supply energy to become the largest wind turbine installer in the world. An amazing, transformative journey. Many more companies should challenge themselves and reflect on this and find a new pathway into the future.

Between the companies that are already on the green road and the companies that are on the black one that needs transformation, there will be a large group of companies who will come under pressure from increased reporting requirements, increased requirements to documentation, increased cost pressure, and increased regulatory pressures. All these companies have a lot of strategic motivation to optimize their business processes and try to ‘reduce the pain’ as much as possible and as fast as possible.

What is important to you in your life?

The top three things I will mention as being really essential or key to me is health, development, and impact. Staying healthy by eating good, healthy food and doing sports to stay fit has always been a high priority to me.

I’ve been surfing, I’ve been skating, I’ve been snowboarding, I’ve been cycling, I’ve been running. All kinds of different sports and all of them outdoors.

I really enjoy nature and being outdoors. That’s where I find my energy and my purpose and where I connect to something deeper.

On development I’m extremely impatient. I always try to I always try to improve or change things. Can I make this work better, feel better or taste better? Maybe it’s because I’m driven by making an impact and making a difference in the world, in people’s lives, for the environment and of course also for myself and my family.

Could you expand a bit on the importance of nature to you?

Being outdoors and being in nature has always meant a lot to me. This is where I recharge my batteries, where I feel purpose and sense of being, and where I feel happiness.

I also become humble in nature. Humble about how unimportant I am, and we are as human beings on this planet. How much bigger nature is and how important it is for us as a species to work with the nature and not against it. If we keep destroying our planet like we do today, then we will be the losers, not the planet.

So, we better start listening to the world and integrating this wisdom into our priorities and making sure that we start living in better harmony with the real powers on this planet – and that’s nature. I’ve brought many of these reflections into my priorities and work life and try to integrate them into the businesses that I have worked with or been connected to.

One of the most direct and powerful experiences I have with the forces of nature is when I go out in the ocean in high vinds and big waves with my kite and my surfboard . Here, I feel really small, unimportant, and I know I have to be very respectful of the forces of nature because if I don’t I get punished immediately.

I think it has influenced my mental model and programming quite a lot. I bring these approaches into my priorities and work in the businesses. When you think about it, there are so many similarities between succeeding as a surfer and succeeding with sustainability in business. You will only succeed with sustainability in business if you mimic the logic of nature. You need to work with the forces of nature, nit against them. You need to avoid the rocks and the sharks. You need to be in the right place at the right time with the right tools.

To me surfing is like attending the University of Nature . At the same time, this is also where I completely empty my brain. This like being in a meditative state. I don’t think about anything else but being there. It’s probably one of the most mindful moments for me when I’m out there in a storm with some big waves feeling the powers of nature in a very direct way.

What is a hurdle to sustainable development within companies and individuals?

To create sustainable development of our societies we must all act. Companies, individuals, politicians and many others all have roles to play. However, It’s my experience that striving for perfection in many cases get in the way of the action we need.

The desire to be perfect or to have perfect information or the perfect solution has been a big roadblock, or at least a bad excuse, for action in many companies and for many individuals over time, and still is. With the increasing use of social media and increasing use of media in general and the hyper transparency we have in the world today, this seems to be a growing problem for both individuals and businesses.

Instead of striving for the perfect solution and the perfect data point or the perfect anything, a much better approach is to be pragmatic and just trial and error again and again and learning from it. This is a much more rewarding process. It’s a much more impactful process and the good news is that there is an increasing acceptance of this approach by everyone around companies.

There’s no longer an expectation that you have a perfect solution, that you know all the answers before you act. But the expectation that you act as a company is growing, and it’s much more acceptable to fail from trying to do the right thing, than from waiting for perfection and not doing anything. I’ll definitely encourage everyone to run, learn, and run more after.

Do you have a goal in your life? What are you striving to do or be?

Honestly, I don’t have a definitive goal. Aside from that, it is my goal to follow my heart and my gut feelings. This is what has led me to make the best choices in my life. It’s also what has driven me onto this sustainability journey. I felt it was the right thing to do.

Setting a goal is like striving for something perfect that you can imagine is perfect. But who knows if it’s true? I certainly feel better guided by my feelings, and it’s my goal to stay guided by them.