In conversation with Maria van der Heijden and Danny Benima
Maria van der Heijden has been managing director of MVO Nederland, the largest network of sustainable business in Europe, since July 2016. In a double interview with our CFO Danny Benima, Maria tells us about her view of the state of sustainability in the Netherlands in general, and at Stedin in particular.
MVO publishes the New Economy Index (Nex), an annual indication of the state of affairs in the area of sustainability in the Netherlands. So Maria has a pretty precise idea of sustainability performance in the year 2022. ‘We can see a slight improvement, but the index isn’t rising strongly enough. Action is lacking.’ Danny: ‘That’s interesting. In our domain, we’ve been seeing a lot of things happening at the same time. Especially over the past year. Are things going fast enough, in your view?’
Speed and action
Maria: ‘I’m quite satisfied with the level of awareness and priority, but less so when it comes to the pace of change and actual actions being taken. And we really need speed and action. Every day that we fall behind on our sustainability targets means that in the end we’ll have to pay a higher price. Note that we have a 50% sustainability target for our business operations in 2030 and we’re currently at just over 11%. In our view, 2025 should really be the turning point when we finally reach the critical mass required. This means we should do much more to gear our environment to the new economy and a new regulatory context.’
The required speed of change creates all kinds of dilemmas.
Danny: ‘As a grid manager we do a lot in the field of sustainable business operations. This concerns both our own business operations and our social tasks in the energy transition.
This speed of change presents us with all sorts of dilemmas as a social organisation. Do we prioritise speed or cost-efficiency in the transition? We come from a world in which effectiveness is a key performance criterion. However, in our strategy we go for speed. So we choose to build those cables after all, even if no compensation is forthcoming.’ According to Maria, cost-efficiency is typical of the old economy. ‘I understand the argument, but it fails to recognise non-financial considerations and the needs of future generations. This calls for awkward and complicated discussions and decisions, but they are really essential.’
Danny thinks that 2022 already was the turning point in the energy transition. ‘Is that how you experience it?’, Maria asks. ‘Yes, it is. Within our sector, this was fuelled by war and high energy prices. These have resulted in a huge drive, internally and externally, to accelerate our sustainability efforts.’
The trick, according to Maria, is to take the time to work out a radically different method and actually confront the difficulties. ‘For example, how do you calculate the costs of biodiversity, or the lack of biodiversity? You need courage to adopt a fundamentally different approach.’
Doing the right thing
Sometimes it is difficult to do the right thing. Danny: ‘That’s also true when it comes to accelerating. We are eager to highlight our internal sustainable business operations, but at the same time our external impact is much bigger. For example, we can accelerate the construction process if we opt for regular rather than circular purchasing. So the question is: what is your priority? Do we prioritise the sustainability of our own processes, or helping our customers become more sustainable by speeding up connections to solar farms or wind farms? Currently we’re trying to do both, but the question is whether that is a feasible approach.
These are typical examples of ‘complex and awkward’. Maria: ‘The fact that this topic is on the agenda is already an important step. Besides, it would be good if we decided on this issue collectively, as a sector.’ And we should not forget the regulatory context. ‘That’s very helpful. Sometimes rules are crucial to bring about change, because only rules will enforce truly different choices.’ Danny adds, ‘After all, people and companies will first consider their own financial interests, and that’s understandable. A regulatory framework will help them to make other choices.’
Good news and bad news
When asked what advice she would give Danny, Maria says: ‘Keep fighting for the full agenda. A compartmentalised approach would be unhelpful.’ Danny responds with a bit of ‘good news’ and some ‘bad news’. ‘Sustainability is a crucial pillar of our strategy, So that’s the good news. However, the ESG theme is currently assigned to many different departments, which is not helpful if you want to achieve comprehensive results. So there’s still some room for improvement in that respect.’ And let’s not forget the influence of current events. ‘Due to the nitrogen policy, there is a risk that we’ll have to cancel €50 million in investments in 2023. For us as a Board, this is unacceptable. So we are now trying to find alternative channels to secure those investments after all.
Maria: ‘That’s what I call leadership. Taking action while acknowledging the risks, that’s the approach we need today.’
Maria van der Heijden: director of MVO Nederland
Danny Benima: CFO of Stedin