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Richard Kühnel, DE

representative of the European Commission in Austria

The sea showcases exceptional projects in the area of sustainability. What does sustainability mean to you personally?

For me, sustainable entrepreneurship or corporate social responsibility (CSR) means that companies don’t base their decisions exclusively on the market and on growth, turnover and profit, but also consider the current needs of society and of future generations with their responsible actions and attitudes, ie by including social and environmental issues in their business activities.

Why do we need sustainable entrepreneurship?

It’s a question of values. The European model is unique in that it has an eco-social foundation. We need sustainable entrepreneurship because people’s environmental and social awareness has increased. The conditions under which products are produced and developed have become a key factor for a lot of people when making a purchase decision. And as a result, this has a direct influence on a company’s competitive capacity. So sustainable entrepreneurship is not only relevant for a modern, balanced and sustainable society, but is also a decisive competitive factor in a global economy.

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

There has been a noticeable shift it values in society in the past few decades. Consumers have become more critical; they are more aware and look at things more closely. And they make more use of the media – particularly the new media – to obtain information or to take action against objectionable behaviour on the part of a company. More and more companies are aware of this and take sustainability into account when compiling their strategies and work processes. Still, we don’t intend to let up until the principle of CSR is a given in all companies.

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?

Unfortunately, it often takes a crisis for us to rethink our behaviour. What’s important in times like these is to learn the right lessons from the situation and to make the necessary adjustments. The EU Commission is convinced that CSR is the right way towards a sustainable future, both for our society and for our businesses. After the crisis, Europe can and should be a pioneer for a socially fair and sustainable economic model.

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

I don’t want to pick out any one sector or company. Unsurprisingly, Scandinavian companies have been active in this regard for quite a while. Today a lot of companies in a variety of sectors are paying increasing attention to the principle of sustainability. In doing so, they are raising awareness and putting a process into motion that the European Commission supports. Ultimately, however, it’s up to the companies to make informed and long-term decisions and to weigh the risks and the opportunities. Many Austrian companies have voluntarily taken these steps. And it’s high time everyone else did too!

Politics, industry, society – who should be the driving force for the development of sustainable entrepreneurship? Which can and should the EU specifically play in this context?

Sustainable entrepreneurship requires the cooperation of everyone involved. Long-term success is only possible if everybody works together. Politics takes care of the legal framework. Industry tries to fit its products and services into these framework conditions. And the consumers ultimately decide to choose sustainable products and services. That’s how these spheres are interconnected.
The EU – and therefore the European Commission – should promote self- and co-regulation and to spread the principle of CSR by employing targeted measures. The European Commission is very active in this area and published a strategy for corporate social responsibility in October 2011, which contains a plan of action for the years 2011 through 2014 with regulations and suggestions for European companies and governments.

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

The European Commission advocates transparency and the disclosure of social and ecological information by companies. Previously, this was done on an informal or voluntary basis. The Commission intends to draw up a draft of legal provisions regarding this topic with the aim of ensuring equal conditions for all companies. Positive examples should gain public recognition and be rewarded.

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

When I worked for the UN in New York, I was involved in drawing up the Global Compact, which was initiated by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general at the time. This global pact is made between companies and the UN, to strengthen the social and ecological aspects of globalisation. Many companies are participating in this pact. And it is no exaggeration when I say that it is a milestone for sustainable entrepreneurship and CSR.