In the upcoming months we’ll be asking women in technology, media, arts, science and business about their view on important and topical issues. This month’s issue: build back better – the economy after the corona pandemic. Marieke Blom (1974), Chief Economist ING, shares her views.
Will there be a ‘reset’ of the economy after the corona pandemic?
Only time will tell. And only time will tell what this ‘reset’ means. Things have changed, our economy is now at 90% of what it was before. We will have to deal with that, businesswise, on a governmental level, but also on a private level. A ‘reset’ is the perfect opportunity to start doing things differently and to switch to a more sustainable way of production, consumption and doing business. Although I do observe a growing tendency towards ‘build back better’ amongst companies, bringing these ideas into practice is a different story. On a micro-level there is a lot of willingness, but it’s only on the macro-level that we can really change the way things are.
What role do companies play in the (lingering) transition towards a more sustainable economy?
A company is a name, a brand, build up by individuals, people. It’s those people that can make the difference and accelerate the process of becoming more sustainable as a business. It starts with the right set of values in the leadership team, putting the wellbeing of the planet next to your revenues. A lot of research has shown that this mindset often comes more naturally to women than to men. The chances of having a conversation in the boardroom about the wellbeing of employees, the destination of retirement money or the impact of production on local waters are higher when women are part of the board. I personally believe that most of all there should be more women at the top in order to get more equal opportunities, but a great side effect can be that it can help the transition to a more sustainable way of doing business. Companies can take two directions: they can start greenwashing some random things, or they can take a hard look at their core business, where they can really make a difference.
That being said, companies will only implement real change in their core business when the overall system changes. When regulation or taxation is put into place, that guarantees a level playing field to all players on the market. Otherwise companies’ ultimate goal will still be to put the best product on the market for the lowest price – from the consumer’s perspective, not from a societal or environmental perspective. We know from a lot of research there is only a tiny proportion of consumers willing and able to pay for more sustainable products. Hence, too often small changes on a company level are not going to change the world or our economy.
How can the switch from micro-level change, to macro-level change be made?
Connection with others is key. Especially the connection with politicians and government bodies on a local and national level – on a personal level! Politics and government are in need for business professionals that think along on different subjects. There are few people who operate in both business and politics (disregarding lobbyists). Politics and business are two different worlds that should be connected to create durable change. That is the only way regulations will change in such a way that all players on the market will have to undergo changes in favour of our environment. Without serious legislation on CO2-emission, waste, the use of chemicals, working conditions e.a. the cheapest product will keep winning – that’s how our relentless market system works. Companies that really want to be part of the change, will have to start asking their regulators to help them stick to their intentions. That would be an entirely new way of lobbying – asking to be regulated – and would mean real impact. I would encourage everyone to think about how they can drive real change in that way.