Global warming stripes 1850–2019. British climate scientist Ed Hawkins’s graphic visualisation portrays global warming: each stripe represents a year.
Photos: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading) CC BY 4.0, Kaisa Sojakka / Red Cross, Birrer Photography, zVg

Change doesn’t happen overnight

Strategic common ground

Foun­da­ti­ons linked to busi­nesses and corpo­rate foun­da­ti­ons that are active in the envi­ron­men­tal sector are using their networks and know-how to make a difference.

‘Envi­ron­men­tal issues are beco­ming incre­asingly rele­vant. And it is beco­ming more and more important for us to find new solu­ti­ons,’ says Vincent Eckert, direc­tor of the Swiss Climate Foun­da­tion. ‘If we want to achieve our climate targets, we need inno­va­tive tech­no­lo­gies,’ he asserts.

The Swiss Climate Foun­da­tion is a volun­t­ary initia­tive by busi­nesses, and is curr­ently supported by 23 part­ner compa­nies: service provi­ders, banks and insu­rance compa­nies in Switz­er­land and Liech­ten­stein who are dona­ting the funds they receive from the redis­tri­bu­tion of the CO2 levy to the foun­da­tion. A CO2 levy is char­ged on fossil fuels in Switz­er­land, and a portion of the funds coll­ec­ted is redis­tri­bu­ted to the compa­nies depen­ding on their payroll. In 2020, this amoun­ted to 188 million francs. Through this system, compa­nies that use less oil and gas get back more than they origi­nally paid.

The part­ner compa­nies donate this money to the Swiss Climate Foun­da­tion. Every year, the foun­da­tion invests between three and six million francs in envi­ron­men­tal projects run by SMEs. ‘By pooling the resour­ces of our part­ner compa­nies, we are ensu­ring that the redis­tri­bu­tion of the CO2 levy has the maxi­mum possi­ble impact. The Swiss Climate Foun­da­tion can use these funds to make a diffe­rence,’ says Eckert. 

Good for the economy and the environment

The Swiss Climate Foun­da­tion uses the money to support projects by SMEs, for exam­ple those imple­men­ting measu­res to increase energy effi­ci­ency. It also assists compa­nies that are deve­lo­ping inno­va­tive products and tech­no­lo­gies that contri­bute to envi­ron­men­tal protec­tion. ‘Deve­lo­ping inno­va­tive solu­ti­ons in parti­cu­lar can take a long time,’ obser­ves Eckert. ‘Many SMEs are reli­ant on exter­nal support for this process. This is where the Swiss Climate Foun­da­tion and its straight­for­ward funding come in.’ Since the foun­da­tion began, around 1,700 SMEs have bene­fi­ted from its support. And the part­ner compa­nies bene­fit, too: they gain access to a wide and dedi­ca­ted network, inno­va­tions, a strong voice and a repu­ta­tio­nal boost. ‘The foundation’s motto is: “By busi­ness, for busi­ness and the envi­ron­ment.” And this is a prin­ci­ple that has borne fruit,’ says Eckert.

A comple­men­tary role

Compa­nies contri­bute a considera­ble amount to sustaina­bi­lity causes through foun­da­ti­ons – a commit­ment that often goes unre­co­g­nised by the public. Many busi­nesses engage directly through their own corpo­rate foun­da­ti­ons, which bene­fit from their proxi­mity to the company. This stra­tegy also has advan­ta­ges for the compa­nies themselves.

‘The foun­da­tion has a comple­men­tary role,’ says David Nash, Senior Mana­ger of the Z Zurich Foun­da­tion, which was foun­ded in 1973 as the Zürich Vita Alpina Jubi­lä­ums­stif­tung and rena­med in 2008. Over the last few years, Zurich Insu­rance has deve­lo­ped its own sustaina­bi­lity stra­tegy to take advan­tage of this inter­play, explains Nash. The insurer focu­ses on coun­ter­ac­ting global warm­ing as per the goals of the Paris Climate Agree­ment: redu­cing its own CO2 foot­print and encou­ra­ging its custo­mers to act in more envi­ron­men­tally friendly ways. The foun­da­tion, by contrast, directs its acti­vi­ties towards support­ing vulnerable people affec­ted by climate change.

Global warm­ing leads to extreme weather patterns, heavy rain and storms. These affect indi­vi­du­als. ‘We go where the people are and do our work there,’ says Nash. ‘We want to make affec­ted commu­ni­ties aware of these chan­ges and help them under­stand the need to adapt.’ After all, natu­ral hazard rela­ted disas­ters will only become more preva­lent in future, he says. The foundation’s Flood Resi­li­ence Alli­ance programme aims to help by assis­ting people in making their local commu­ni­ties more resi­li­ent to future floods.

A more resi­li­ent world

As part of its efforts to create a more resi­li­ent society, the Swiss Re Foun­da­tion has been active in the area of sustaina­bi­lity since 2011.

To illus­trate the kind of work the foun­da­tion does, direc­tor Stefan Huber Fux gives the exam­ple of Yuca­tán on the Mexi­can penin­sula: ‘You’ve got para­di­sia­cal Carib­bean beaches, and off the coast you have one of the world’s most signi­fi­cant reefs, which boasts an incre­di­ble amount of biodi­ver­sity.’ The reef is also of central importance to the local popu­la­tion, both for the fishing indus­try and for the region’s billion-dollar tourism indus­try. But Yuca­tán is incre­asingly being hit by hurri­ca­nes in parti­cu­lar, often with a disas­trous impact. ‘Rese­arch has shown that an intact reef is the chea­pest and most effec­tive form of protec­tion for the coas­tal region,’ says Huber Fux. Based on this know­ledge, the Swiss Re Foun­da­tion has colla­bo­ra­ted with local part­ner orga­ni­sa­ti­ons to put a mone­tary value on the reef for the first time. This, in turn, has paved the way for a form of insu­rance cover in which bene­fi­ci­a­ries of the reef’s protec­tion – such as hotel owners – cover the costs. ‘Our focus is on under­stan­ding how a reef can sustain its func­tion for the local area in the long term, and how local groups can do the neces­sary “main­ten­ance work” them­sel­ves,’ Huber Fux explains.

At a coral bree­ding centre, young corals are grown so that they can later be plan­ted in badly dama­ged parts of the reef – simi­lar to a tree nursery. Huber Fux is convin­ced that it is precis­ely this kind of cross-secto­ral work that will enable us to tackle the huge chal­lenges we face on our jour­ney towards a more resi­li­ent, robust world. The company’s own network is key to achie­ving this. ‘Espe­ci­ally given that we are a corpo­rate foun­da­tion, we see our employees as important part­ners whose exper­tise can play a major role in deve­lo­ping new solu­ti­ons,’ he asserts. The foun­da­tion also bene­fits from the company’s repu­ta­tion. ‘We are a rela­tively small charity in global terms, so Swiss Re’s repu­ta­tion defi­ni­tely opens doors for us,’ says the foundation’s direc­tor. One of the key pillars of their successful coope­ra­tion, accor­ding to Huber Fux, is the fact that Swiss Re as the parent company shares the same vision of crea­ting a more resi­li­ent world. There are limits to the colla­bo­ra­tion, however. 

The foun­da­tion is active in many count­ries that are not top prio­ri­ties for Swiss Re. The focus on local impact and a considera­ble degree of inde­pen­dence from its parent company are also central to the work of the Syngenta Foun­da­tion. For 40 years, the foun­da­tion has been dedi­ca­ted to promo­ting sustainable small­hol­der agri­cul­ture in deve­lo­ping count­ries. ‘We are able to address issues that matter to small­hol­ders locally, but which aren’t of much commer­cial inte­rest on a global scale,’ says Paul Castle, Head of Commu­ni­ca­ti­ons at the Syngenta Foun­da­tion. While the company Syngenta aims to make a profit, its foun­da­tion can operate free of short-term finan­cial pres­sure or any worries about turno­ver and margins.

Castle nevert­hel­ess sees econo­mic viabi­lity as part of the foundation’s work: ‘In addi­tion to envi­ron­men­tal and social sustaina­bi­lity, econo­mic sustaina­bi­lity is also a factor,’ he says. Agri­cul­ture can only be truly sustainable if it is an attrac­tive career option for future gene­ra­ti­ons. ‘It’s far more sustainable for small­hol­ders if deve­lo­p­ment focu­ses on putting market systems in place rather than giving hand-outs,’ conti­nues Castle. ‘But sadly, many people still don’t see it that way.’

Cons­truc­tive collaboration

SENS is dedi­ca­ted to an area that is of simul­ta­neous commer­cial, envi­ron­men­tal and econo­mic inte­rest. Since 1990, SENS has been demons­t­ra­ting how a foun­da­tion can make a real diffe­rence. Its donors include Coop, Migros, RUAG and the canton of Aargau. The foun­da­tion addres­ses compa­nies’ need for commer­cial, envi­ron­men­tally friendly waste dispo­sal – at an over­ar­ching level and inde­pen­dent of the compe­ting compa­nies, which act in accordance with the exten­ded produ­cer respon­si­bi­lity (EPR) policy. It guaran­tees a take-back system for elec­tri­cal and elec­tro­nic house­hold appli­ances through the advance recy­cling fee (ARF). Commu­ni­ca­tion with its part­ners is corre­spon­din­gly important.

‘Our coope­ra­tion with commer­cial compa­nies has always been, and remains, close and colla­bo­ra­tive,’ says Sabrina Bjöörn, Head of Marke­ting and Commu­ni­ca­ti­ons. She is respon­si­ble for ensu­ring sustainable deve­lo­p­ment. Part­ners can address their requi­re­ments directly, and the foun­da­tion takes them into account. It’s an extre­mely cons­truc­tive form of colla­bo­ra­tion, says Bjöörn: ‘Espe­ci­ally because sustaina­bi­lity and resource conser­va­tion is at the fore­front of what we do. Compe­ti­tion doesn’t play a role in these partnerships.’

The volun­t­ary nature of the system is also a decisive factor, and has enab­led it to be incre­di­bly successful – as the figu­res show. Over the past 30 years, SENS has ensu­red the correct dispo­sal of 1.2 million tonnes worth of elec­tro­nic devices. Online retail poses a chall­enge for the future, howe­ver. ‘Thus far, online retail in Switz­er­land has complied well with the ARF,’ says Bjöörn. But the situa­tion is more diffi­cult when it comes to foreign online retail­ers. In addi­tion to giving consu­mers the option of paying the ARF them­sel­ves, ther­e­fore, SENS also works with foreign orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. Colla­bo­ra­tion with key part­ners within Switz­er­land is also crucial to success. The most direct way to achieve this is having a repre­sen­ta­tive on the board of trus­tees. ‘The Asso­cia­tion for House­hold and Commer­cial Elec­tro­nic Devices (FEA), for exam­ple, is on our board of trus­tees, where it is able to repre­sent the needs of its members,’ says Bjöörn.

Euro­pean warm­ing stripes 1901–2019.
The colours show devia­tion from the average tempe­ra­ture, cooler in blue and warmer in red.

A strong board of trustees

For many foun­da­ti­ons, having company members on the board of trus­tees is a way of streng­thening ties with the indus­try. This has a twofold effect: it provi­des access to exper­tise and important cont­acts from the company, while also estab­li­shing the role of the foun­da­tion within the company. ‘This approach has been very helpful for us,’ says Stefan Huber Fux. In future, howe­ver, once the foun­da­tion is estab­lished, he intends to involve more exter­nal experts. The situa­tion in the Z Zurich Foun­da­tion is simi­lar. The current board of trus­tees is drawn almost enti­rely from the company itself. ‘This means that the foun­da­tion is very close to the busi­ness,’ says Nash, which helps with ongo­ing support and stream­li­nes colla­bo­ra­tion. ‘Alig­ning with the company also helps us to stay rele­vant,’ he adds. It demons­tra­tes that the foun­da­tion is in the stra­te­gic inte­rests of the company. Howe­ver, one disad­van­tage is the lack of an exter­nal perspec­tive from which to streng­then decis­i­ons. Paul Castle pres­ents a simi­lar picture. The fact that Erik Fyrwald, CEO of Syngenta, chairs the foundation’s Board is a reflec­tion of the close ties with the company. ‘There are many advan­ta­ges to having top-level links. Erik’s three prede­ces­sors were all Chair­men of the Syngenta Super­vi­sory Board,’ says Castle. He nevert­hel­ess expres­ses a common view at corpo­rate foun­da­ti­ons: ‘We’re glad that there are no other company employees on our Board. That gives us a good balance between proxi­mity and inde­pen­dence.’ Castle empha­si­zes that the foun­da­tion is a sepa­rate legal entity. Its segre­ga­tion from the busi­ness is laid down in its statu­tes, which allow the foun­da­tion to operate only outside Syngenta’s commer­cial activities. 

At the same time, the Syngenta Foun­da­tion is one of quite a few corpo­rate foun­da­ti­ons that work in simi­lar thema­tic areas to their foun­ding compa­nies. This simi­la­rity in their fields of acti­vity has the major advan­tage of enab­ling exper­tise to be shared. ‘We could talk toge­ther for hours about healthy soil, sick plants and digi­tal tools,’ says Castle. Howe­ver, the foundation’s inde­pen­dence allows it to address a much wider range of topics. Irri­ga­tion equip­ment, small­hol­ders’ orga­ni­sa­ti­ons and their market access, for exam­ple, are not high on the company’s agenda. Rese­arch and Deve­lo­p­ment part­ners with which the foun­da­tion works are usually inte­res­ted in crops of no commer­cial signi­fi­cance to a multi­na­tio­nal. These include cassava or the Ethio­pian staple grain, teff. The Syngenta Foun­da­tion always works with part­ners. ‘These include other foun­da­ti­ons – often as funding part­ners – and a wide range of further orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, from NGOs to govern­ment minis­tries, univer­si­ties and insu­rance compa­nies,’ says Castle.

Swiss warm­ing stripes 1864–2019.
It may look like modern art, but the increase in red stripes strikin­gly visua­li­ses rising temperatures.

Coope­ra­tion is key

Working toge­ther is beco­ming more and more important. Even in the face of the pande­mic, the topics of sustaina­bi­lity and the climate crisis are gaining in signi­fi­cance. A climate-neutral future requi­res new inno­va­tions – solu­ti­ons for crea­ting carbon-neutral real estate port­fo­lios, or remo­ving CO2 from the atmo­sphere and storing it long-term, for exam­ple. In order to effec­tively promote these tech­no­lo­gies in the long term, ever­yone needs to get involved. 

Compa­nies have to address the issue – and they want to. ‘We’re very plea­sed about that,’ says Vincent Eckert. ‘We are seeing the inte­rest in envi­ron­men­tal issues increase.’ The Swiss Climate Foundation’s exper­tise is in demand. Compa­nies have come to realise that they cannot tackle envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges alone, states Eckert: ‘They need to form alli­ances.’ Stefan Huber Fux also high­lights the need for joint efforts. He is plea­sed to see the incre­asing aware­ness among young people and their willing­ness to play an active role in shaping their future. ‘They’ve reco­g­nised that the climate crisis is a reality that they are going to have to live with much longer than many of the people who are curr­ently calling the shots,’ obser­ves Huber Fux. Time is running out. People will be slow to realise that 2030, the next mile­stone for climate policy, is rapidly approa­ching, thinks Nash. 

‘It’s now happe­ning within our life­time.’ This makes the urgency clear. Howe­ver, he considers pati­ence to be the grea­test chall­enge. ‘Despite the urgency to take action, we need to convince people that the effects won’t neces­s­a­rily be imme­diate.’ Over­co­ming this exis­ten­tial crisis is the work of years, not of days, and it demands new forms of part­ner­ship, like those of the Flood Resi­li­ence Alli­ance, which uses the coll­ec­tive intel­li­gence of all its parti­ci­pants. This requi­res everyone’s abili­ties and resour­ces, says Nash, explai­ning that the intellec­tual capi­tal or ‘tool­kit’ produ­ced by this work should be open to ever­yone. ‘We are taking a colla­bo­ra­tive approach. The foun­da­tion is one part of that,’ he says. ‘We need to take into account all the available perspec­ti­ves – no single sector can solve the problem alone. The more part­ners we have from diffe­rent sectors, the grea­ter the impact will be.’

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