20 years with sustainability in business: From minor trend to the only game in town

Nowadays, sustainability is so important for business development and survival that it could be the only game in town for any CEO. Hear from our panel of business professionals and researchers associated with the Centre of Sustainability on 20 years with sustainability in business and beyond.


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Text: Richard Steed (rs.slk@cbs.dk) Photo: CBS

Twenty years ago CBS established a research centre on sustainability to support a successful development in businesses and society. Back then sustainability was not a common topic at board meetings nor in the minds of top managements.

Today, sustainability has finally come of age and recently CBS celebrated the 20 years anniversary of CBS Sustainability as the centre is now known.

We took this opportunity to ask our panel to give us their views on the outlook for sustainability within international business. Also to assess the impact of the centre so far on business and society and what role and contribution the centre could have in the future.

Our panel included: Lene Bjørn Serpa (Maersk) Janda Campos (Grundfos) Jonas Eder-Hansen (Global Fashion Agenda), Associate Professor Steen Vallentin, Professor Andreas Rasche, Professor Jeremy Moon, and Vice Dean of Green Transition Hanne Harmsen.

What is the outlook for sustainability within international business?

Lene Bjørn Serpa, Head of Corporate Sustainability & ESG, A.P. Moller – Maersk; co-author of the book “Squaring the Sustainability Circle: Strategy Essentials for Business Leaders” (2022). 

“More than any other actor in society, business has the potential to scale solutions that can deliver long-term, sustainable impact. 

The outlook for sustainability within international business is full integration into business models, operational decisions, and commercial offerings – guided by comprehensive strategies across environment, social and governance dimensions, and with transparency and accountability on progress and impact through reporting within standardised frameworks.

What are the key issues that are moving fastest and will create new sustainability risks and opportunities over the next years? For me there are three key areas.

Firstly, biodiversity and circularity; The nature agenda is rapidly becoming as important to business as climate. Secondly, just transition and the S in ESG: Climate and social justice are no longer separate issues but recognised as interconnected in the demand for a green and just transition, and this must be fully reflected in companies’ transition plans. Thirdly, social, and environmental due diligence across value chains; Due diligence requirements are now set to become hard law in the EU and will become an engrained part of business decisions and a core pillar of compliance programmes.

We are at a critical inflection point. My hope is that we are headed towards transformative societal impact, achieved in partnership and collective action with stakeholders across sectors, and with support from policymakers. Given the increasing geopolitical tensions and pressures in the world, a green and just transition is even more urgent today.”

Janda Campos, Senior Director, Head of Group Sustainability, Grundfos.

“Regardless of the multi-crisis environment we are living in, or exactly because we are in such a multi-crisis environment, what lies ahead is a further integration of companies into society, in a way that we will be transforming our business to act and behave according to sustainable principles.

There is no denial, that the regulatory framework around sustainability has increased, enhancing the focus on documentation and trustworthiness as well as concrete measures and targets. The future of sustainability for companies will be learning to deal with this or the next issue or crisis such as climate change and loss of biodiversity.

The future belongs to companies that take a proactive and comprehensive approach to sustainability becoming better equipped to not only meet current expectations, but also to anticipate and capitalise on the opportunities of the future by learning how to prioritise and maximise their positive impact to society while neutralising their negative impact in all areas, climate change and biodiversity included, but also the ones we have not considered yet.

A transformation, where sustainability considerations permeate all parts of business and become the core of business strategy is something I believe we will see increasingly going forward.

Sustainability requires a global effort and a commitment from every individual and organisation to do their part, and this will of course take time as we also need to endure and manage the crisis ahead of us. However, the future of sustainability is full of potential and possibility. With the right investments, policies, and public engagement, and not to forget education and research, we can build a more sustainable world for future generations.”

So far, what is the impact of CBS Sustainability on business and society?

Andreas Rasche, Professor of Business in Society at CBS Sustainability Centre.

“Corporate sustainability has undergone significant changes in the 20 years the centre has existed, not just in terms of the language used. Of course, we moved from “CSR” to “sustainability”. But what is more is that we have seen tectonic shifts in how the debate is taking place. 

Twenty years ago, we had to convince people of the relevance of topics like climate change or human rights protection. Nowadays, there is broad acceptance among businesses and the public that these topics matter. Also, financial markets have significantly driven the debate – 20 years ago, sustainability was a niche phenomenon. Today, financial markets are one of the key drivers of this entire debate.”

Jeremy Moon, Professor of Sustainability Governance, CBS, and original director of the Centre, Author of Corporate Social Responsibility: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford).

“Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) emerged as a management concept with modern corporation as managers replaced owners as business leaders. Broadly, CSR can be defined as ‘policies and practices that reflect business responsibility for some wider social good.

Since then, CSR has overlapped with other concepts, such as corporate accountability and corporate citizenship. The most recent overlap is with corporate sustainability which puts greater stress on ‘sustainable development’, ‘planetary limits’ and the role of science as agenda-setting.  Many corporations now adopt ‘corporate sustainability’ to signal engagement with these wider concerns.”

Steen Vallentin, Associate Professor, and current Centre Director of CBS Sustainability Centre.

“It would be overly dramatic to suggest that everything has changed, but certainly much has changed – at CBS, in the research and education ecosystem we are part of, and in society. Although we are still struggling with the same fundamental problems of how to reconcile economic instrumentalism and economic growth imperatives with social responsibility and sustainable solutions, the conditions underlying research, teaching and dissemination have changed considerably. 

In research we have witnessed an explosive growth in publications and research outlets with the proliferation of more specialised journals and with mainstream management and organisation journals (and others) publishing papers on CSR and sustainability. As a result, junior researchers are now, compared to 20 years ago, entering a field with more established and varied research streams and more clearly defined areas of interest and concern – irrespective of the disciplinary vantage point.

However, 15-20 years ago, we were used to having discussions with anti-CSR Friedmanites (monetarists adhering to the theory of economist Milton Friedman) arguing that ‘the business of business ought to be nothing more than business. This viewpoint is hardly ever voiced in class anymore. Instead of discussing whether companies need to engage in sustainability, it has become an inevitable matter of how.”

Jonas Eder-Hansen, COO of Global Fashion Agenda, who worked at the Centre from 2002- 2010.

"Over the 20 years of existence, the centre has significantly helped further develop and give input to the language that defines sustainability research today and has established itself as one of the leading lighthouses of sustainability research on a global level. One big milestone was to have CBS sign the United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) in 2008, marking CBS’ commitment to business in society and its full integration into research and education.

I am extremely happy and proud to have been part of the initial journey." 

What is the role and contribution of the CBS Sustainability Centre moving forward?     

Andreas Rasche, Professor of Business in Society at CBS Sustainability Centre.

“The centre must continue to function as a hub for sustainability-related knowledge here in Denmark and beyond. As academics our expertise is as relevant as ever, and we need to make sure that our expertise really reaches Danish society. Academic expertise is vital because we try to be as objective as possible when making judgements, and we base our expertise on rigorous research. 

Making the connection between society, business, and academia deeper and stronger should be our key agenda item for the next ten years.”

Hanne Harmsen, Vice Dean of Green Transition at CBS.

“CBS Sustainability Centre has, due to its long history and large number of dedicated faculty, a fantastic basis for the challenges to come. Sustainability as a goal and even necessity is a societal response, now recognised by everyone from regulators to companies, to the climate crisis. This implies that the future potential impact of the centre is huge. 

We must not forget that the centre also develops new knowledge that is taught to CBS students. An increasing number of CBS students are highly dedicated to sustainability and rightfully expect their courses to be state-of-the-art. We equip them with knowledge and skills that they can use to solving sustainability challenges in industry when they graduate.”

The page was last edited by: Sekretariat for Ledelse og Kommunikation // 12/19/2022