Can a Pencil Save the World?

Three days of top-notch presentations, workshops and discussions about sustainability – this is what the Sustainable Brands event offered last week in Copenhagen. It was heaven for a true sustainability nerd, one could say. In these three days I was inspired, learned new things, and found answers to the question “Can a Pencil Save the World?”

These three days can be summed up by four key insights:

1. It’s all about people.

2. It’s circular business or no business.

3. Brands are used for social purposes.

4. It will all be virtual.


It became evident that sustainability is just talk unless there is a c-level commitment, preferably from a CEO who leads by example and is fully committed to drive organisational change towards new business models and to reach ambitious sustainability goals. There is definitely room for a new breed of CEOs: Ralph Thurm, with his extensive career in sustainability and reporting, presented that now most leaders are absent and only ca. 10% of multinational companies are engaged in sustainability. But as I learned from Leith Sharp, Director, Executive Education for Sustainability at Harvard University, we also need creative cells and change ambassadors in the organisation as the dominant hierarchical control and command operating system does not support innovations and change. Or as Solitaire Townsend, Founder of Futerra, put it, “People have purpose, organisations can only activate your purpose.”


“Current capitalism won’t last forever.” It’s not exactly what I expected to hear from Richard Northcote, CSO of Covestro, a multi-billion euro company that produces polymers. And it’s not exactly what I expected to hear in many other presentations and discussions throughout a business seminar either. Everything will be circular: not only materials but also financial capital. Financial capital will not be extracted from the value chain to the shareholders (present model) but circulated back to the value chain of a company to create more wealth for the whole value chain. This not-for-profit business is not utopia and it’s already here, according to Jennifer Hinton, Co-author of How on Earth: Flourishing in a Not-For-Profit World, which will be published in January 2017.

In addition, young generations entering the job and consumer market will have an impact on business models, as most of them are not interested in owning things; they only care about functionality. This is at least how IKEA sees it. One thing is certain: In this new systemic change towards circular, more sustainable business, the most successful strategy involves partnering with other organisations who share the same sustainability goals. Like what Neste and IKEA have done.


In the past year or two we have witnessed an invasion of brand campaigns addressing social or environmental issues. During these three days I saw many great examples of this. Heineken’s Michael Dickstein said that nowadays the Heineken brand is mostly used to convey a message of moderate alcohol consumption. He also showed how the Strongbow brand addresses social issue in Johannesburg, South Africa. A powerful example of trying to drive behavioral change was presented by Omo/Persil. I bet that this is only the tip of the iceberg and more will come.


This is tough. In a few years’ time I will not fly over to a seminar and meet people in real life. Very soon these kinds of gatherings will all be in virtual reality. It hit me when I visited DONG Energy’s virtual tour to one of their wind turbines. Even though virtual reality experiences are in their infancy, the pace of development is beyond imagination. And this, will turn many business models around, if they survive at all.

And no, a pencil cannot save the world but it is a step in our mutual journey towards a more sustainable world. At least if we believe the only plantable pencil manufacturer Sprout’s CEO Michael Stausholm.

If you are interested in discussing sustainability insights and enjoy fruitful conversations, you’ll find me at susanna.saikkonen(at)


Susanna Saikkonen is Miltton’s Head of Sustainability and she has 15 years of experience from marketing, sales, strategy, and corporate responsibility. In her free time she enjoys life outdoors – on sea, in forest, on snowy hills and cheering at football games.

Twitter: @SSaikkonen