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Sustainability means strategic choices and small actions

Sustainability is a word that is increasing its visibility in the communication of organizations. Just as occupational safety became a critical theme in the 1970s, sustainability found its way into the corporate agenda in the 2010’s and is now an indistinguishable part of business. This is exemplified by the steady increase in cash flows to responsible ESGs: in October-December alone, European ESGs raised a historical amount of more than 120 billion dollars in new capital. Sustainability is therefore no longer a matter of interest for a small conscious group, but rather a decisive factor in business decisions. But what does sustainability mean for organizations themselves? And how can organizations be sustainable in their actions?

At NHG, meaningfulness is one of our values. What started as an academic startup with roots in Aalto University has in 15 years grown into a Nordic expert organization. Yet many things have remained the same, such as the fact that our people work with a big heart and a desire to improve the world. Our shared mission is to help customers build better and more effective health and social services that promote the wellbeing of patients and end customers. Therefore, one could argue that corporate social responsibility is at the heart of our operations. 

When I started working at NHG as communications manager two years ago, sustainability became a timely issue inside our company. A considerable snowball effect was set in motion when sustainability matters suddenly seemed to emerge from many directions. However, the most important catalyst was a single question from our staff regarding whether NHG could compensate for our flight emissions. I got this suggestion on my table, and immediately realized that this was not just about one single climate action. To answer the question at hand we should first find out what sustainability means to us at NHG in general, what it entails and what kind of sustainability actions would have the largest impact.

The importance of sustainability when choosing an employer has grown year by year. However, sustainability does not have to only focus solely on environmental issues: it may also centre around social responsibility. Since the initial question proposed to us was related to environmental issues, we started with considering different perspectives related to this: Is emission compensation effective? Could we achieve better results through different actions, such as reducing travel or by changing means of transport? What is the share of air travel emissions in NHG’s carbon footprint? We ended up calculating an estimation of our CO2 emissions and conducting an extensive environmental survey for all NHG employees. The feedback we received through responses to the survey and the large number of respondents throughout our company proved to us that our employees’ interest in sustainability matters is high.

In addition to our personnel, also our owner Vaaka Partners and their investors showed interest in our CSR matters, as the importance of responsibility and transparency has only increased in recent years for these investors. Among our customers CSR matters are only beginning to arise, but it is apparent that responsibility is increasingly becoming a more central matter also on our customers’ and partners’ agenda. I believe that responsibility will become an integral part of the value we create for our customers and I am glad that NHG has already taken a step forward in this.

How did we get started in creating a sustainability strategy at NHG? While we at NHG have carried out sustainability actions in the past, such as pro bono projects, our previous CSR work lacked the structuredness, ambition and measurements that the sustainability strategy set out to pursue.

By coincidence we got a team from Hanken School of Economics’ CSR Master’s program to help us get started with our sustainability strategy. We chose the triple bottom line as a framework, including social responsibility, environmental responsibility and financial responsibility. Within these areas, we ended up choosing four focal points under social responsibility and two focal points under environmental responsibility in which we can make the largest impact. Financial responsibility was seen as a constant factor throughout all of our business.

The selected development targets included for example continuing to utilize our expertise in societal pro bono projects, ensuring the wellbeing of our employees and non-discrimination in recruitment, organizing a CSR training and reducing our carbon footprint from business travel. To monitor the changes and results, we chose Baumgartner’s and Ebner’s maturity model’s four different levels of sustainability maturity (Beginning, Elementary, Satisfying and Sophisticated).

After well-prepared groundwork, our own sustainability team continued to work on the strategy by defining measures and targets for each focal point and maturity level. We also created a roadmap to achieve the targets for 2021-2024, including defining next steps in implementing the strategy in NHG’s operations. In order to prevent the sustainability strategy from becoming detached from the rest of our operations, we tied as many of the metrics and actions as possible to existing structures, such as the annual employee survey and our Inspiring and Empowering People strategy program.

A significant milestone in sustainability thinking at NHG was achieved when CSR was included as a crossfunction in NHG’s new strategy. This will ensure that sustainability will not be a separate goal but rather a truly integrated part of all NHG’s operations. Every old and new employee at NHG receives training in sustainability matters. This is a strong message to our stakeholders: we are committed to promote and further sustainability in all our operations.

To conclude, let’s go back from strategic choices to the small, important actions and daily choices of NHG employees that will ultimately bring our sustainability strategy to life. It all started with the idea to compensate for flight emissions – what happened to this suggestion? As you may already guess, it is a part of our environmental program but, like a few other development targets, awaits the post-Covid19 time in terms of setting the correct starting level, target level and schedule. We want to ensure that the level of ambition is set high enough in all our development targets, so we are waiting to see what the “new normal” will look like.

There are no easy solutions when you want to achieve something impactful. As one of my colleagues wisely said: “Achieving the highest sophisticated target level must be painful”. I couldn’t agree more.

Milja Saarimaa, NHG, Communications and Marketing Manager, responsible for sustainability matters