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Swedish Briefing Part 3: Civil society - A gentler NGO approach

Sweden’s campaigning organisations have notched up notable successes through cooperation rather than confrontation

To outsiders, Sweden presents a vision of clean waters, boundless tree-filled wilderness and healthy, hearty, nature-loving blondes. That’s a generalisation, but the picture resonates with Swedes themselves, which may be one of the reasons the country started early with environmental regulation and domestic support for non-governmental organisations. Sustainability-promoting organisation The Natural Step (TNS) originated in Sweden, and the country hosts one of the world’s largest WWF divisions.

Although it can lay claim to one of the earliest and most famous cases of European tree activism – the 1971 “Almstriden” or “battle for the elms” – Swedish environmentalism generally favours a more collaborative approach. And while movements like the Nordic Action Climate Camp still favour direct action, for the most part, public-private partnerships are a Swedish speciality.

NGOs are aided in this by a government structure that fosters high levels of transparency and access. “Politicians are much more accessible in Sweden than in many other countries,” says Barbara Evaeus, manager of climate communications for WWF Sweden.”

Step by step

TNS, a catalyst of the corporate sustainability movement, sees the evolution of sustainability-focused non-governmental organisations in Sweden as divided roughly into two phases. The first – from the late 1980s to the late 1990s – was a mobilising time, and NGOs such as TNS experienced rapid growth, according to Kaj Török, a senior adviser and communications manager for the organisation.

“People here started to understand that they had to do something about sustainable development. TNS helped answer the ‘why’ question – why do we have to address sustainability?” Török explains. “The first wave was why, now it’s about how.”

How NGOs actually make the business case to industries and implement positive change is, of course, trickier than just explaining why change is needed. WWF’s Evaeus believes Sweden is in danger of losing its position as a front runner in sustainability because it hasn’t moved swiftly enough to scale the innovative products and solutions generated by NGOs and budding entrepreneurs. “[Swedes] have been resting a bit on their laurels especially in reference to climate policy and clean technology where they were once global leaders,” says Evaeus. “They need to step up their efforts in this area in order to regain their lead.”

Though she points out Sweden’s shortfalls, Evaeus is also intimately involved with its potential successes – as co-developer of WWF’s three-year-old Climate Solvers project, which originated in Sweden and spotlights 24 of the country’s most innovative pre-market climate solutions. Climate Solvers, Evaeus explains, doesn’t only promote these game-changers, but uses them to galvanise support from government and policymakers for home-grown entrepreneurial green tech.

So what do a hamburger and a bag of popcorn have to do with all this? The hamburger, as most in the western eating world know, is a pretty good poster child for sustainability’s challenges. A fast-food burger from a chain such as McDonald’s or Burger King has become an icon for food globalisation, obesity, inequality in working conditions and the environmental hoofprint of beef production.

But fast-growing Swedish burger chain Max Hamburgers saw this poor reputation as a business opportunity. In 2007, working closely with TNS the company re-examined its operations and dared to ask the unthinkable: “Is a sustainable burger chain even possible?”

Pär Larshans, Max’s director of sustainability, says the company used TNS’s four basic sustainability precepts to visualise the gap between current operations and sustainable ones. With the road mapped, the company switched all its restaurants to wind energy, bought low-carbon vehicles, and offset carbon throughout the supply chain via reforestation projects in Africa. It also cut GMOs from its supply chain, upped its recycling rate, found FSC-certified paper for wrappers, and began a programme to hire and train disabled workers – 100 and counting. It also put a CO2-equivalent tag on its burgers and sandwiches – a revolutionary move in the food business.

Popular with customers

TNS’s focus on dematerialisation convinced the company that instead of sourcing post-consumer paperboard for kids’ meals, it should scrap the box altogether. Max’s “fast, smart, and concrete” delivery of results astounded TNS, Török says.

But the biggest surprise of all was the popularity of the company’s actions. “There was a 27% increase in customer loyalty [between 2007 and 2009] and the chief executive concludes that at least half of that comes from sustainability efforts,” Török enthuses. As Max’s chief executive Richard Bengfors puts it in a report on the TNS-Max partnership: “Our sustainability-related activities turned out to be our most profitable initiatives ever.”

In Sweden, non-governmental organisations have been most successful where business and consumer concerns intersect. For example, Rättevistmärkt (the local Fairtrade NGO) has made big strides, getting Swedish consumers to increase their purchasing of Fairtrade certified foods by 75% in 2009 alone.

Human rights and social justice issues resonate with the Swedish public. So it’s not surprising that Respect, established in 2000 by Swedish environmental pioneers Per-Uno Alm and Kaj Embrén, has been able to create widely accepted business sustainability tools by through two separate networks, The Business Leaders Initiative on Climate Change and Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights.

Swedish faith in government-led domestic welfare also extends to its activities abroad. The government-sponsored Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) has, since 2006, been heavily involved in sustainable development work in Afghanistan, for example. Although NGO Monitor is critical of the political agendas that determine how Sida’s money is spent, Sida has been instrumental in launching much-needed development programmes in the region, with special emphasis on women.

Sida has also granted 12m kronor (€1.3m) to the Swedish NGO Hand in Hand. Founded in 2000 with the support of former ABB chief executive Percy Barnevik, Hand in Hand works to empower women to start sustainable micro-financed companies, and recently established a bank.

Micro-finance, especially in India, has recently come under close public scrutiny. Yet Hand in Hand’s work has made a tremendous difference in the Indian Tamil Nadu region in the last decade. More than 600,000 women have gone through its entrepreneurial training, and more than half a million have started small businesses.

Tamil Nadu housewives Arulmani and Selvarani are two such entrepreneurs. With a loan of 5,000 rupees (about €80), they set up a popcorn business in Selvarani’s kitchen. Six years on, they are making 10,000 rupees a month, have developed six different snacks, and plan to brand their goodies. They can afford to send their children to school and their husbands have joined the business. With the new Sida grant and Barnevik’s business acumen, Hand in Hand now has the chance to attempt to work similar magic in Afghanistan.

How Swedish NGOs broach future sustainability challenges may well be framed by the work of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Gathering together 29 international scientists to create a new paradigm for sustainable development, the centre has established what it calls “planetary boundaries” for earth’s different systems – safe thresholds beyond which the risk for chaos grows uncomfortably high.

The nine resulting boundaries – which include climate change, land and freshwater use, chemical and aerosol loading, biological diversity, ocean acidification, ozone depletion and the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles – form the key issues NGOs around the world will need to work on in years to come. The centre will provide necessary data and knowledge. “We’ve experienced increasing interest from NGOs in Sweden,” says Carl Folke, research director at the centre. “We hope their interest will persist and contribute to sustainable development of social-ecological systems, with a shift in perspective from saving the environment to being stewards of our own future.”

April Streeter is a writer specialising in sustainability since 1998. Formerly based in Sweden, where she covered Scandinavia for Windpower Monthly, she now lives in Portland, Oregon, and is a blogger for Tree Hugger and The Huffington Post.

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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