Speech Rutte at the opening of the ‘Sustainability as a competitive advantage’ seminar, Istanbul

Speech by the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, at the opening of the ‘Sustainability as a competitive advantage’ seminar, Istanbul, 7 November 2012. The Prime Minister pays an official visit to Turkey from 5 to 7 November 2012.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Recently, the Hürriyet Daily News published an interesting article that could almost have been written for this seminar. It was about the sustainable business strategy and Turkish operations of Unilever, the well-known multinational with Dutch roots. Without batting an eyelid, the top Turkish executive quoted in the article said that by 2015 all the vegetables and tea that Unilever buys in Turkey would come from sustainable sources. That’s only two years from now. This local goal is even more ambitious than the one hundred per cent that Unilever is aiming for worldwide by 2020.

I myself worked at Unilever from 1992 to 2002. So I was right there when the company started its drive for sustainable growth. Today, Unilever is a global leader in the field.

Of course, I am not here to represent Unilever. Sustainability is firmly rooted in the business operations of so many Dutch companies. In fact, a few months ago, several major multinationals in the Netherlands joined forces to set up the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition. Alongside Unilever these are Heineken, FrieslandCampina, Shell, Philips, AkzoNobel, KLM and DSM, all global players and market leaders in their own, very different sectors. This underscores the support there now is for sustainable business models − and shows that business is leading the way. More and more companies are opting for sustainable and socially responsible business practices, and nine times out of ten they beat the government to it. I don’t think that the pioneers of this approach in the 1990s could have imagined just how quickly things would move forward.

There can be no doubt at all about the reasons for this choice. Business is business. These companies realise that sustainability is the future and that there is much to be gained from leading the way. Or, as the title of this seminar rightly points out, sustainability offers competitive advantages. Raw materials like oil are becoming scarcer and more expensive. The world’s population will have grown to 9 billion by 2050. More and more consumers are switching to sustainable products, because they’re aware of the impact of today’s choices on tomorrow’s problems. So sustainability is a clear business case. It promotes growth and is essential to long-term business success. Because it saves costs and fosters customer loyalty. And in essence, business continuity is also a form of sustainability.

I should emphasise that sustainability and corporate social responsibility are not a gimmick. Companies cannot use them to boost their sales and profits overnight. A thin layer of corporate social responsibility simply doesn’t work. If anything, the reverse is true. If it is not genuine, people will easily see through it.

So companies that successfully follow a sustainable business model have made the concept part of their corporate DNA. From the boardroom to the shop floor, and from headquarters to the smallest branch. And their approach has substance. Companies like these are setting themselves major, measurable goals and they make those goals visible to the outside world. Because they want to be accountable. Like Unilever with its tea production in Turkey. Like FrieslandCampina, which wants to be fully sustainable by 2020, while helping 40,000 small farmers in Africa and Asia boost their earnings. Or like the Turkish company Arçelik, which has developed the world’s most water- and energy-efficient dishwasher. In Turkey alone, this will help secure the water needs of 500,000 more people.

And there are so many more examples like these. Examples that increasingly extend beyond borders, in line with our globalising economy. And that is exactly where this seminar comes in. The Dutch and Turkish economies are becoming more and more closely intertwined. Over the past decade, trade between our countries has tripled and continues to grow rapidly. So it makes sense to work together on sustainable innovation. By sharing knowledge and experience we can unlock bigger markets and create new opportunities.

The Dutch concerns I have mentioned are trendsetters in this field. But following on behind them is a broad and growing layer of small and medium-sized businesses that are also pursuing a sustainable growth strategy. Holland has become a sustainable brand. But things are moving fast here in Turkey too. This seminar is all about helping each other to develop new products and organisational models. And above all, to get to know each other’s markets. What works and what doesn’t? That’s a key question when doing business abroad.

In anticipation of our panel discussion, I should say that governments also have a role to play on this stage, but certainly not the leading part. Governments can stimulate sustainability, through tax measures or subsidies, for example. Through a targeted innovation policy that forges links between knowledge centres and businesses. And through economic diplomacy that provides opportunities for seminars like this. But what governments cannot do – and should not seek to do – is take over the role that businesses play.

Kees van der Waaij, one of my mentors at Unilever and a pioneer of sustainable business, once said, ‘When trying to make the world a better place people overestimate the role of government and underestimate the role of businesses’. I couldn’t agree more. After all, we talk about corporate social responsibility, not government responsibility.

Ladies and gentlemen, on that note I would like to wish you a rewarding seminar and, of course, plenty of sustainable business success in the future.

Thank you.