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Sustainable Economy Forum in Berlin: can companies save the world?


This article is part of an online series about the experiences of the Sustainable Economy Forum during their trip to Berlin, 4–8 November 2012.

Companies play a key role in the sustainable economy. They can carry social responsibility, turn sustainability into business and affect consumer behaviour.

Researcher Esther Hoffmann from the Institute for Ecological Economy Research talked to the Sustainable Economy Forum about reporting on social responsibility. Social responsibility obliges companies to work in an ecological and socially responsible manner towards all who are affected by their activities. It does not only mean compliance through legislation but voluntary ‘extra’ investment in the sustainability of the environment and well-being. 

At its best, social responsibility and the reporting of it to the outside world instils true commitment in companies to operate in a sustainable manner. At its worst, it is a shallow marketing strategy and ‘greenwash’. It seems that companies comply best with their social responsibility when it is at the core of their business operations. “Saving the world should be business,” remarked one of the forum members.

In Berlin, the forum members also met with several companies that have turned sustainability into business. GLS Bank is a German cooperative bank, whose operations are based on strict ecological and social principles. “We only finance people’s basic needs,” says Werner Landwehr from GLS. “On every loan we contemplate carefully what effect the money has on society.”

In accordance with its values, the bank finances – for example – educational projects, housing, producers of renewable energy, organic farming and also grants micro loans. Customers who take out an account with the bank can decide which sector their money is lent to. The bank operates transparently and keeps a public list on all loans it grants. “The financial crisis tripled our customer base,” says Landwehr.

It appears then that there is demand for ethical financing activities. GLS has over 100,000 customers and a balance sheet of EUR 2.8 billion. It is a far cry from the largest German banks but still makes it one of the largest cooperative banks in the country.

Berlin is said to be the start-up capital of Europe and the forum met with several companies on the rise: Lgmi designs games and applications for companies and organisations which promote ecological sustainability or well-being in their operations. Betterplace is a mass funding platform for development aid. Solar Brush robots clean solar panels, for which mass funding is provided by Milk the Sun.

The trip to the German capital also gave the forum members the chance to meet with researcher Cheryl Hicks from the CSCP centre (Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Production and Consumption.) In this video, Hicks presents her views on what kinds of business opportunities are afforded by scarce resources and how companies can affect consumers to make sustainable choices.

Learn more with these presentations on enterprise social responsibility, the GLS bank and sustainable consuming and business.