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René Schmidpeter

International CSR expert

With the sea, the Verein für Sustainable Entrepreneurship aims to recognise outstanding projects that put sustainable entrepreneurship into practice. What was your motivation for joining the sea  jury?

It is obvious that the present commercial and social challenges have a European dimension. Nevertheless, the search for solutions is very often kept at a national level. The sea differs from other CSR awards in that the invitation to take part extends beyond national borders. We need more sustainable entrepreneurial approaches in all regions of Europe and we should learn more from each other. The sea provides a good opportunity to get to know prime examples from various countries and thus to support the European idea of sustainable entrepreneurship. It is in times such as these when a joint idea can connect us and help to rebuild lost trust.

What does sustainable entrepreneurship mean to you personally?

Sustainable entrepreneurship for me means using the positive effects and creative potential of running a business more than ever to achieve the sustainable development of our society. The present crisis shows us that we need more ecological, social and, above all, more economical sustainability in our actions. Entrepreneurs can contribute greatly here by adapting their business models to have entrepreneurial and social added value.

Why do we need sustainable entrepreneurship?

Because we need entrepreneurship! History has shown that in all times of change, entrepreneurs were also important social innovators. I am thinking of business pension funds, in-house training and much more. Entrepreneurs are often the first to acknowledge how the land lies and are ready to invest in their social surroundings. These entrepreneurial approaches are more important than ever to find new solutions to current challenges (lack of resources, demographic developments, etc.). I am absolutely convinced that we can only exist if businesses are a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. That means that if companies see themselves as sustainable entrepreneurs.

How firmly rooted is sustainable entrepreneurship already in people’s thinking and, above all, in the actions of companies?

Small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, are aware of the importance of a stable environment (i.e. good education, health and social systems). They have mostly been rooted in their region for decades and have invested in their social surroundings. This engagement is more important than ever. Sustainable entrepreneurs are now going a step further by orienting their whole entrepreneurial added value towards the principle of sustainability. They use all their resources to generate added value both in their business and in society. They are successful, not at the cost of society, but for the good of society. Sustainable entrepreneurship encourages us to reflect and understand social problems to see them as an opportunity for entrepreneurial actions. 

It would seem that sustainable entrepreneurship has become even more relevant in the wake of the crisis. Do you agree? And why is it that it often takes a crisis for a shift in awareness to come about – in business, as well as in politics and society?

Social challenges have grown constantly over the last decades. We are on the verge of counting seven billion inhabitants and in many parts of the world dynamic leaps of development are imminent. We are now experiencing a time of change, and the crisis is now making apparent for many what others have known for a long time. We need new management approaches and commercial innovations to be able to stay fit for the future. ‘Trust in the economy’ and ‘Entrepreneurial creativity’ have become rarely-heard phrases. As we were able to rely on people’s unlimited trust in commerce during the last decades, we must now generate a stronger social added value through more transparency and innovation. Only this way will it become clear that companies are a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. 

If we regard sustainable entrepreneurship as a matter of common concern, then at the opposite end of the spectrum we can definitely also see a strong trend towards individualism, self-centredness and nationalism. Where did this inconsistency come from? And how can we do away with it?

In times such as these, many people prefer the things they know. They try to seal themselves off from supposed negative developments. However, this attitude often makes the problem worse as it hinders learning from each other and finding a mutual solution. Therefore, more than ever, we need ideas that connect us. Sustainable entrepreneurship can be an important bracket to encapsulate the already existing positive entrepreneurial approaches and to give people a joint idea as to what they can contribute to the economy to ensure a positive future. This process is only conceivable beyond borders and has to really capture the minds of people in all of Europe.

Which sectors do you think are doing the most in terms of sustainable entrepreneurship, and which have a lot of catching up to do?

Those sectors in particular that are facing great challenges (energy, automotive, food industries, etc). have recognised that things cannot continue the way they have until now. Or to put it positively: if you want to stay competitive in the future and join new markets, this can only be done with sustainable products and services. This is not just huge leverage for the solution of pressing social challenges, but also has great potential in terms of companies’ earnings. Clever managers and entrepreneurs have realised this and are already investing in the solutions of tomorrow. Whoever misses this development will be one of the losers of globalisation. 

Politics, industry, society – who should be driving force for the development of sustainable entrepreneurship?

At the moment it is not only the role of companies that is being redefined in society. There is also a shift in the roles of politics and of civil society. The focus is on the realisation that no one can solve the present challenges alone. It is far more a question of bundling all social energies to work together towards a sustainable society. Politics can take on a significant role as a moderator here and form the corresponding basic conditions in dialogue with the companies and non-governmental organisations so that sustainable industries become more attractive. In addition, the decision makers from political, economic or social sectors can contribute in their respective surroundings to make sure the main idea of sustainability is put into practice.

In what way can each and every one of us contribute towards increasing the relevance of sustainable entrepreneurship?

By seeing ourselves as entrepreneurs who can generate added value for themselves and their surroundings through their actions. And by reflecting and recognising both our own possibilities and our limits. If it is not possible to solve a problem alone, we should look for new solutions in cooperation with others.

How can sustainable entrepreneurship measures be prevented from being nothing more than greenwashing? Which internal measures and methods must be applied?

Transparency and the involvement of stakeholders is indispensable if you want to integrate sustainability into a company. In addition, you need a clear strategy as to how social and entrepreneurial added value can be generated, and it is necessary to build concrete measures on this, whereby success is controlled through suitable management and measuring tools. Such strategic actions should be clearly communicated internally and externally and any criticism should be used to bring about improvement.

What role do the employees play in the process of sustainable entrepreneurship?

Employees play an exceptional role. They are the ones who fill the business strategy with life on a daily basis with their many small and large decisions. Therefore it is important to develop a joint vision of sustainable entrepreneurship in order to generate commercial and social added value in all areas of an enterprise. If employees see themselves as sustainable entrepreneurs, a new creative potential will arise, which helps the business to achieve success.  

And lastly, a personal question: What is the most memorable SE project you’ve ever heard of – and why?

For me, it is the many middle-sized enterprises that survive in the daily competition and at the same time are very aware of their social responsibility. Young entrepreneurs especially who do not take the easy path, but really put their all into implementing their own idea. If they are then also commercially successful and make an important contribution towards the development of our society with a sustainable product or service, then I am no longer all that worried about our future. And I am quite certain that there is an increasing number of these entrepreneurs. Times like these turn sustainable entrepreneurs into winners. I am hoping to get to know as many ideas as possible from these entrepreneurs through the sea and am sure that I will remember every single one of them.