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Dutch Foundation shows how marginal action can have mainstream impact

April 20 2006:

Philanthropist Allerd Stikker with a painting of the Buddhist deity Guanyin

In 1986 Dutch industrialist and chemical engineer Allerd Stikker published a book entitled “The Transformation Factor”. It focused on ecology, economy and the insights of philosophers Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Lao Zi. The work earned him a research MA at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Leeds University, and it also encouraged him to initiate research into how Taiwan, the Far East economic miracle was turning into an ecological disaster.

The resulting report, “Balancing Economic Growth and Environmental Protection,” published by Taiwan National University in 1989, was acknowledged by the Taiwan Government as a guideline for the future. And the following year Stikker decided to set up the Ecological Management Foundation (EMF), initiating projects to promote connections between economic and ecological principles in the business world. Since 2003 he has been one of ARC’s leading private sponsors, and is currently co-sponsoring our Qinling Sacred Mountain Ecology project. In the second of arcworld’s occasional series of interviews Victoria Finlay asks him about how his experiences running an ecological foundation can feed into the wider experience of protecting the environment.

Q: What persuaded you to start your foundation?

A: In one way it stemmed from advice given to me by the Catholic priest and ecological activist Thomas Berry in 1985. We were sitting under a 400-year-old oak tree in the garden of the Riverdale Centre, which is the centre of his religious order, the congregation of the Passionists. I had known him since we first met, in 1981, at an event to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the birthday of Teilhard de Chardin. He said he was intrigued by the impact that writing The Transformation Factor would have on my own life, if I were to live what I wrote.

And he said there seemed to be three choices. The first would be to go into radical activism; the second would be to go back into industry and change things from within. And the third choice seemed to me to be most empowering: it was to engage in what he called marginal action, which as it suggests, means working at the margins. Not being radical, not destroying anything, but working with what structures there are already, and helping them work better.

Q: Can you give an example of marginal action at work?

A: Yes. But first I’ll give an example that didn’t work. It was my first big initiative for the foundation. I thought that it made sense, if you wanted companies to incorporate environmental considerations into their ways of working, to provide training programmes for them. And I worked at it for a year. But I noticed that 80 percent of the audience wasn’t interested. They were thinking about their sales figures, and taking calls on their mobile phones… and making abstract long-term thinking was a bridge too far. And I remembered my own experience in industry: I hadn’t had time for this kind of thing either… so I thought there must be another way of doing things, of finding practical solutions.

"I noticed that 80 percent of the audience wasn’t interested. They were thinking about sales and taking calls on their mobile phones… and I thought there must be another way of getting the environment treated seriously by businesses. And what I came up with was introducing the subject through the side door."
And what I came up with was introducing the subject through the side door. I knew that Natwest Bank in the UK had been very forward thinking on the area of the environment, and later I learned that when the chief executive had been a student in Cambridge, he had attended a brilliant lecture about it, and he had pledged that if he ever came to that kind of decision-making position he would help change things.

So I took their model of including a company’s environmental record in their decision-making process before making a loan. And in 1992 I proposed to banks here in the Netherlands that they took the environmental issue into their credit risk rating, just as they include other factors like proposed turnover. It’s not just a charity thing: if a company has a plan which takes extremely good care of the environment it’ll be likely that it’ll be doing other things well, and could be a good candidate for a loan.

I published an article on this subject, recommending that the business world should pay equal attention to financial, human and natural resources in their strategy and operations. It’s the 3P principle: PEOPLE, PLANET, PROFIT – and if one of them is missing then somehow your company might find itself going down the drain. At the very least, if you don’t think about the environment now, then someone might sue you in the future. It seemed to be an ideal project for marginal action, so I decided to take it on.

Q: How were the banks persuaded to incorporate the second P – the welfare of the Planet - into their loan schemes?

A: At first it was difficult. In Holland only the ING Bank at board level was intrigued by this kind of thing. Most credit managers were against it because it involved more work. They would say things like: “we have so much to check; we aren’t able to judge this extra thing as well.

Now almost 15 years later all the banks do it: in fact you can’t read any report on a business proposal without finding environmental considerations incorporated.

Some banks didn’t have the courage of their convictions. But the change started with the slow realisation that the cultivation of the palm oil plant (used in many products, from cooked food to cooking oil to shampoo) had been largely responsible destroying vast forests in South East Asia. And in 2003 international banks started to realise that it was really bad and they made the Equator Agreement whereby around 35 of them have now agreed not to finance a big dam or pipeline or other major project without considering the environmental aspects, and moreover that they would exchange information about bad environmental practice. It’s a code of conduct about what they will or won’t finance.

Q: So what’s the Grand Vision here?

A: Well in the past we have looked only at financial resources for a company to be successful; we have since learned that you need to look after your human resources. And now we are adding the ecological factor - the natural resources - into the business world.

Q: Can you give other examples of marginal action?

A: Yes. Article writing is a good one. If you write about the practical implications of projects, and stick to environmental principles. And letter-writing is another. It is all about having small plans in the context of a grand vision. We can all do it.

Or giving talks. After 1986 I was invited to give presentations to universities and conferences for business people. The people who attended were the future business minds and industrialists of Europe. I find out now, 20 years later, that it did help some of them think in different ways. Or one of the best types of marginal action is using your networks and access.

And last but not least is introducing practical projects that directly affect operations.

Q: What does that involve?

A: If you have a way of gaining entrance to a company then perhaps you can help influence their way of doing business for the better. And then the tips for success are perhaps the same with any good business idea. The first thing is to choose the right subject and the right project; then the next thing is to find the right person in an organisation who can effect change in that area. You have to be committed to the cause, and you also have to be very well prepared before you contact anybody. And the final thing is that you need to be about five years ahead of your time. If you are in that situation then you can really effect something. If it’s more than that then people are not interested… and if it’s much less than that, then perhaps you are already too late.

Can you tell us about your work on water projects?

Since 1995, I have been intensely involved in developing a new desalination technology whereby fresh water is made from sea-water or brackish water on a very economical and ecologically acceptable way. In a world where freshwater is becoming increasingly scarce, seawater is a vast and mostly unused resource, at least along the coastlines. I have been – and still am - involved in which is the fresh drinking and sanitation scarcity in poor developing countries. talking about millions but of billions of people being affected, and of more than 10,000 deaths per day as a result of lack of access to clean drinking water and sanitation water.

EMF is working with many parties, entrepreneurs, NGOs, technical experts, banks and investors on “Micro” water solutions, many of which are owned from the grassroots level and by the community. This month in Holland we just initiated - with a great amount of support, - the Micro Water Facility (MWF) to facilitate and speed up the process of micro water solutions with micro finance involvement.

Yesterday for example, I found myself at a conference in Utrecht. Art students as well as professionals, had been invited to come up with design proposal to help people save water. And there was were some really good ideas. The winner was a Brazilian, who devised a way of storing rainwater for the occupants of the favela slum areas.

Q: Looking back over the past two decades what are the highlights for you, of having set up the foundation?

Apart from the bank case mentioned earlier, in around 1993 I introduced the "environmental performance indicator" concept into the Dutch business world, using business methods and benchmarking to make visible how companies perform environmentally.

And another of the nice things recently is that I was contacted by one of the leading private equity venture capitalists in Holland who set up a fund called the life sciences fund. As he had read about my foundation in an interview in the Dutch Financial Times, he approached me to offer his personal support and cooperation on reaching EMF’s goals

I suppose the real highlight is seeing that the private sector is beginning to consider the issue properly. In 1992 the banks said ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ when it was suggested that they took the environment seriously. It’s a good thing to see that 15 years later they have changed their point of view.

Q: Have there been many big surprises?

A: Yes. For example, since 1997 my foundation has been looking for opportunities to try and promote micro-credit. I asked one of my board members to find out more about it. She went to Jordan, Chile and Bangladesh to attend Micro Credit Summit conferences and look at projects. When she came back here I asked her what was her conclusion: where should we best work? And she said Amsterdam. We don’t have anything like that here, and many unemployed, poor and capable people would benefit from it. France, for example, has a national micro-credit agency, and so does Bosnia.

Micro-credit doesn’t actually make a profit in Europe – transaction costs for small loans are high. But if you look at the costs of having someone unemployed – not earning, spending or saving – then the benefits – both social and economic - are huge. First, people have more self-respect; second you are saving money. That is what we are now going to do in Amsterdam, possibly in more places in Holland later.

Q: And what are your immediate plans?

A: To work out the implementation of the Micro Water Facility, concentrating on providing small workable solutions to big, seemingly unmanageable, problems. And of course also to find out, with ARC, what this could mean for the faith institutes around the world, where churches, temples, mosques and cloisters can assist in applying micro water solutions in rural communities.

Q: And finally, do you have a tip for an eco-project to watch?

A: At the moment I’m interested in a product called Aqua Aero Systems. The theory is an old one: a solar still. A Dutch inventor has used this simple technology to make what he calls a “water pyramid” – a balloon-like tent covering 200 sq metres is heated by the sun, thereby evaporating brackish and dirty groundwater at the bottom. The vapour condenses on the inner side of the tent and is collected separately,

It can create between two and three cubic metres of distilled water a day: enough to serve several families. One of the problems of projects like this is that they need capital which is still difficult to raise. However I’m in touch with a Christian charity trying to install it into villages in Brazil. They are trying out a model that involves the local people using and selling the water for small, affordable amounts of money, to see whether the technology can be financially as well as environmentally sustainable for drinking water and for vegetable growing.


Speech by Allerd Stikker at Lambeth Palace, May 4 2005

The Ecological Management Foundation (EMF>.

Daoist Sacred Mountains.

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