With a strong economy and global brands, Sweden is busy building a sustainable future

The year is 2024. In the picturesque Royal Seaport area of northern Stockholm, residents wake up to clean dishes, dried clothes and charged cars. The streets bustle with activity as people hurry to their virtual meetings. The combined efforts of solar and wind energy, cutting-edge architecture, electric cars and appliances with machine-to-machine communication enable these residents to produce 1.5 tonnes of carbon per person annually, about 75% less than 15 years before.

Back to 2010, and Royal Seaport is one of Europe’s largest construction sites. A joint initiative between the city of Stockholm, academia and businesses including ABB, Ericsson, Electrolux and energy company Fortum, it is pioneering a smart-grid system – a precondition for zero-carbon living.

The goal: to build a fossil-fuel-free community with 10,000 residences and 30,000 workplaces by 2030. It has the potential to showcase Sweden’s innovation, IT and engineering excellence internationally. In a nutshell, Royal Seaport embodies Sweden’s vision of sustainability and the role of business partnerships in achieving it.


Sweden is used to accolades for its sustainability performance. In 2007, it topped AccountAbility’s Responsible Competitiveness Index ahead of Denmark, Finland, Iceland and the UK, for doing the most to advance business competitiveness through responsible business practices.

“Sweden shows that good social and environmental performance can underpin and support economic growth,” says Paul Begley, research manager at AccountAbility. More recent indices concur – Transparency International rates Sweden fourth best in its global Corruption Perceptions Index, while Edelman’s Trust Index 2010 concludes that companies headquartered in Sweden are among the top three most trusted globally.

It’s good for international reputation building. Exports are the lifeblood of Sweden’s GDP, motored by vibrant automotive, electrical, chemical, telecoms, steel and paper industries led by globally recognised brands including Ikea, Ericsson, Electrolux, H&M, SCA, SKF, Volvo and Tetra Pak.

Future areas of focus include environmental technology: the Swedish government has earmarked $590m for environmental projects over the next two years, including $180m to commercialise green technology.

Many Swedish multinationals were early adopters of the sustainability agenda. The driver was not so much consumer demand as recognition of sustainability’s strategic potential in international business – and because the state demands it. Laying out clear rules is something Swedish government does well.

The Swedish way of tackling sustainability challenges is the systematic way. Swedish business has a long-standing appetite for management systems and standards and boasts the fourth highest ISO14001 accreditation rate in the world – impressive for a country with a population smaller than Belgium’s.

Consumer challenges

Consumers are used to having their best interests looked after by the state. In a 2009 Globescan report, only 4% of Swedish consumers spontaneously brought up climate change and environmental issues as a top concern – well below Australians (22%) and Chinese (23%).

They make up one of the most homogenous markets in Europe; once products are accepted, widespread adoption is guaranteed. Take fair trade. After a long struggle to break through, sales of fair trade products increased 75% in 2009 alone.

As a small country, corporate, political and cultural life is closely intertwined. Exchanges come naturally and informally and are typically consensus-driven. Swedes like to agree, so many don’t “get” stakeholder engagement – it seems redundant.

Sweden’s open and ongoing dialogue between employers and unions is a case in point, designed to let the parties co-operate without surrendering their own interests. By law, employee unions must be represented on the board of every listed company.

No country is perfect and the former leader of the political opposition Mona Sahlin has noted that Sweden has the most highly educated taxi drivers on the planet – alluding to the difficulties facing those with non-Swedish names in finding appropriate employment. It’s a recognised problem, yet few Swedish companies can demonstrate they are actively addressing it.

Actions speak louder than words in a country where understatement is engrained. Swedes call it “jäntelagen”, meaning “a code of conformity forbidding anyone to feel superior to their neighbours”.

In the corporate sustainability context the result is a focus on process and performance measurement and getting your house in order – a successful approach for risk management. However, as sustainability ratings indices increasingly gauge companies on bold leadership and forward-looking strategy, this traditional discretion could mark Swedish pioneers down.

Astrid von Schmeling, based in Stockholm, specialises in sustainability strategy and communications. She is a former managing director of the magazine Tomorrow: Global Sustainable Business.

Ethical Corporation: Sweden corporate responsibility factsheet


Socio-economic statistics obtained from recent publications from the CIA Factbook and the Human Development Index.
Guideline and standards statistics obtained during November 2010 from official website of each initiative.
Corporate responsibility data obtained from a November 2010 Ethical Corporation survey. The small sample of this survey means that the results should be regarded as an indication of trends in Sweden and not as scientific research.

The writers of the Sweden briefing are part of One Stone. In addition to Stockholm, One Stone’s partners and associates are based in Edinburgh, Sydney, Malta and Portland, Oregon. One Stone has more than two decades’ experience working with multinational companies to guide sustainability leadership strategies and provide focused sustainability communication.

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