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Problem solving: The sustainable way of thinking

2 May 2018 – Vincent Triesschijn, Director of Sustainable Investments at ABN AMRO Bank, reflects on the development of the sustainability agenda and his own progress as a sustainability leader since studying CISL’s Master’s in Sustainability Leadership.

When I started working in the financial services industry, sustainability as a concept related to business was in its infancy and only really thought to be relevant for use in a small number of evaluation models.

Triggered by Real Estate investors looking into energy efficiency, I was extremely interested in learning more about sustainability in general and so I began searching for a related course but there weren’t many available in Europe at the time. The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) Master’s in Sustainability Leadership stood out as it was the only programme fully dedicated to helping individuals and organisations build their understanding of sustainability and take leadership to tackle global challenges. 

The course had an immediate impact on me because, aside from finance, I was also learning about the full range of sustainability challenges such as ecology, ethics and other  topics that inspired me from a personal, as well as a professional, perspective. I had not given these areas much thought before and always approached my work from a more financial and risk angle. I found myself discussing both subjects related to social issues such as the use of child labour in the manufacturing industry as well as initiatives with a positive contribution to the environment and society at large.

Influencing where the money goes

It was a real eye opener so I decided that I should integrate these social factors into my thinking. I have always been convinced that ‘money talks’ so as a financial investor you can influence where the money goes and what companies do with it. 

Through the University of Cambridge, I came into contact with Bridges for Enterprise (BfE), an international non-profit organisation with students, professionals and social entrepreneurs all involved with business ventures that help create a more inclusive and sustainable future. They connect students with social enterprises in frontier markets.

I was working with impact investors anyway and it made sense for me to put them in touch with my contacts within the impact investment world. Personally, I find this very rewarding as people in frontier markets often lack the skills we take for granted. What’s not much work for the students in developed countries makes quite a difference to the frontier markets entrepreneurs. 

A mainstream practice

Over the past ten years, sustainability as a concept has gone from being a niche interest to becoming a more mainstream business practice in many developed countries. However, in some countries, it’s still in its infancy, whilst particularly in the Nordic countries, it is becoming the standard.

At ABN AMRO we work for institutional investors and private wealth managers, a broad investment management audience. In Europe, one in three clients already asks us to invest in funds with strict sustainability criteria. In the Netherlands it’s one in two. We’re finding that institutional investors, charities, foundations, family offices and also private individuals no longer wish to be associated with morally risky investments that can fall under the media spotlight, bringing unwanted attention. This is a more recent shift in approach for private clients but something pension funds and insurers have been adopting for a number of years. Whatever their rationale, I’m simply happy they have made that choice. I envision that Sustainable Investing becomes the norm and that’s why we, as a bank, already offer it as the default option to new clients.

When I wrote my thesis 'Aligning Sustainability with Investment Objectives’, I saw so many opportunities for investment in energy efficiency projects but there was a lack of investment. This frustrated me so I set out to convince 30 institutional investors to fund green economy projects. It was interesting to see that even though such investments contributed positively to society and brought good financial returns, they were still hesitant to sign up mainly due to uncertainties over regulation and the inherent risk involved.

A focus on profitability

Looking to a more positive future, it’s encouraging to see that a growing number of presentations by world leaders at the World Economic Forum contain the word sustainability. One of the presentations every year is on the main risks we face as a society and climate change was at the top of the list. In the corporate world it’s becoming more prevalent but even though there is much attention, there are still business leaders only taking small steps because profitability is still the primary focus. 

The circular economy is a good example of this. At the moment, it is still a niche movement with many ideas are still in the venture capital phase. I am proud that as a bank we have a commitment to invest EUR 1bn in circular economy deals even though it’s proving hard to find companies and investors willing to engage at this stage.

I am really hopeful that the sustainability agenda will continue to grow but if you take a look at some of the statistics and data it’s hard to deny that a lot of things are still not going in the right direction. I am hopeful we can do a lot and I think we should stay positive as many of today’s problems can be solved by a more sustainable way of thinking. However, one thing is for sure and that is that it requires leadership to change businesses and systems.


Develop your leadership skills, strengthen your sustainability knowledge and bring real change to your organisation and your career with a Master's in Sustainability Leadership.

 

vincent triesschijn

Vincent Triesschijn is Director of Sustainable Investments at ABN AMRO Bank, working on sustainable investments, sustainability (ESG) integration, impact investing and corporate engagement.

Vincent has worked in the investment industry since 2006, previously at UBS, JP Morgan and Kempen & Co on (sustainable) equity and debt-related mandates. He attended the Master of Studies (MSt) in Sustainability Leadership at CISL between 2011 and 2014. He is the author of 'Aligning Sustainability with Investment Objectives'. Vincent is a coach for (social) start-up enterprises, focusing on scaleable initiatives and an advisor to 'Bridges for Enterprise', a University Of Cambridge society.

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Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.