Spotify and Essity finding common ground: A cross-industrial conversation on sustainability

25 May 2022

The SCC community is like an extended network of colleagues. Although in different industries and businesses, there is most likely a colleague out there facing challenges similar to those you are trying to crack this very moment. To tap into the vast knowledge of the community, we brought together Hanna Grahn, Sustainability Lead at Spotify, and Jo Pybus, Sustainability and Public Affairs Manager at Essity, for a cross-industrial conversation on sustainability and to exchange ideas on how businesses can accelerate in reducing our environmental footprint.

Jo: I’ve been with Essity for 20 years, and only started focusing on sustainability five years ago. An engineer by background, I have had the opportunity to work with everything product supply to retail brand management and product development. I see this as a good thing, as I understand the whole spectrum of what happens in our business and can tailor our sustainability efforts to that. It’s the perfect combination, as I like looking for gaps and seeing where I can make a difference.

Hanna: For me it all started back when I was studying finance, and I found myself questioning the lacking inclusion of sustainability within that education. It made no sense to me to exclude it when you put a portfolio together, run an organisation, or start a new business. So, I wrote my thesis about it, and tried to smuggle a bit of sustainability into the curriculum.

After graduating, I joined a private equity firm to become part of their new sustainability team. Back then, it was a rather new space within that industry, and I quickly realised that it’s the tech companies, with their speed and innovation, who can combat the climate crisis in time. So, when I got the opportunity to join Spotify and lead their climate related work, I just had to take it.

The defining moment
Jo: I have a pretty clear defining moment of when I became interested in sustainability from a career perspective. It was in the middle of a personal crossroad where I wanted a new challenge, and I saw David Attenborough’s documentary “Blue Planet”. It was especially an episode about plastic waste in the seas that inspired me to do something more with the tasks I had, one being a report on our packaging data. I realised I could do something more with it, and took the opportunity to use that data to drive change and educate my colleagues on making our packaging more recyclable. After that, everything just snowballed, and people automatically started coming to me for those kinds of questions, and my role evolved from there.

“David Attenborough said it best when he said ‘just don’t waste’.”

Decoding the lingo
Hanna: What made me realise I wanted to spend my career in sustainability was that I saw a gap where we had all the science and research, we kind of knew what to do, but we didn’t know how to communicate it in a way that would make everyone understand. The scientists and highly skilled people didn’t speak the same language as eg. financial managers, the people running the value chain, and so on. That’s why the work never took on the magnitude and speed that was needed. I became very passionate about trying to bridge that gap and make sure sustainability isn’t treated as something that is run on the side of businesses. I wanted people to feel like it is a part of their everyday operations. I think, the more comfortable you feel and the more you know about the subject, the more you care, and the more you are likely to take action.

Jo: I recognise the problem of using different terms when talking about sustainability. Back during the first lockdown in 2020, we did some research resulting in our Green Recovery Report, where we asked consumers about their understanding of sustainability and what it meant. The results showed that not only are different things important to different people, but the language that is used is often confusing – what do words like “biodegradable” mean in a practical sense, for example. From a consumer’s perspective, it’s also all about convenience. So, we can nudge behaviours by making it easy to be sustainable, rather than to build it up into something complex and confusing. David Attenborough said it best when he said, “just don’t waste.”

A shift in interest
Hanna: I would definitely say that it’s a different world today from when I started in this space about seven years ago. As I said, I come from an education in finance, and no one there understood what I did. I was always a bit of the weird one focusing on sustainability. Now, there has been so many people from school, and even previous mentors to me, that have reached out to me wanting to learn more about sustainability. In the past two years, the issue has really trickled through every industry, and the question is no longer if they can do something, but what they can do.

“I was always a bit of the weird one focusing on sustainability.”

Jo: I’ve seen that shift too. I’ve been with Essity for most of my career and we have long worked with responsible forestry certifications such as FSC® and PEFC™ and been doing lifecycle assessments since early 1990s. It was never something we shouted about in the past, because the interest from others wasn’t there. Now, we’ve had to learn a whole new way of communicating about it, and that has been a very interesting aspect of the journey for me. Like Hanna mentioned, you must be involved in sustainability now, because so many of the investors, consumers, and other stakeholders are demanding it.

Getting the message out
Jo: I think the media has had, and still has, a massive role to play in the dynamics between the different stakeholders in society. Again, referring to David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet”, just look at how it energised a whole movement! Attention and awareness are what will spark change, and media platforms have a great opportunity to do so – providing this is done responsibly.

“Media has a massive role to play in the dynamics between different stakeholders in society.”

Another thing I find interesting is how businesses are taking matters into their own hands. Some are starting to take products off the shelves that they don’t deem sustainable, and are requiring suppliers to develop sustainability plans. I think there are some interesting interactions, not only between different stakeholders, but also within the stakeholder groups themselves.

Hanna: Something we discuss a lot at Spotify, is what kind of message we want to send out regarding sustainability. There’s this balance to be kept between wanting people to feel hope, because especially younger generations are feeling anxious about the future and the climate, but also communicating the severity of the crisis. There’s also the difficulty of creating a balance between individual actions and systematic change. It’s very interesting working in the digital space in terms of that, because people tend to focus a lot on what to eat, and how to travel to be eco-friendly. Our digital lives and how they impact the environment is something that has flown under the radar. There is not that much research done on the emissions coming from audio and video streaming – that is something we are working on right now and it is super exciting.

Sustainable storytelling
Hanna: Our biggest impact is definitely through our platform in terms of talking to scientists and helping to put the message out there. We want to play a different role and package the messages in new ways, because we have the science, we have the solutions, but still, people aren’t taking all the action needed. As world-renowned primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall argued, if you want people to act or change, you have to get into their hearts, and you get into people’s hearts through storytelling. I think this is the missing piece – to move faster in this aspect you need to make people feel something about the issue, it needs to get closer to people’s realities. That is what Spotify is all about. We have amazing creators that can, either through music, podcasts, or other formats, actually tell stories. We want to reach those who aren’t already interested in sustainability. We have the 10% who are climate deniers, 10% who are climate activists, but the remaining 80% – those are the ones we need to reach, and I think we need to do it through new formats.

“To move faster in this aspect you need to make people feel something.”

Jo: It is a very fascinating opportunity you guys have. As a manufacturer, we have a huge responsibility in terms of moving away from fossil fuels and shifting to new solutions. We have some fantastic examples of this, our mill at Lilla Edet using biogas to replace natural gas in Sweden, and in Germany we’ve got a green hydrogen pilot being developed in one of our mills using new innovative technology. I was really interested in the storytelling you mentioned Hanna, because what we try to do is break barriers to wellbeing, and help people live healthy lives, all in the most sustainable way possible. But in order to do that, we need to make it easy for people to be sustainable.

Hanna: I love what you are saying about making it easy to be sustainable, because it is becoming more evident that being sustainable isn’t a trade-off anymore. Take for example Tesla cars – people are not buying them primarily because they are electric, they buy them because it is a better car than many others. If we can manage to make people feel like they aren’t sacrificing anything to contribute to a better climate, that’s it – that’s when we have succeeded.

Finding common ground
Jo: I think the biggest challenge to achieve our goals is the current instability in the world. Since there are so many urgent and serious situations happening right now, the climate crisis is fighting for its breathing space. It’s very reassuring to have spoken with Hanna today, it made me realise that our heads are in the same place. Even though we have different challenges and different priorities, fundamentally, we are aligned in what needs to be done. I think Spotify has a very powerful gift in being able to educate through their platform. I will definitely take the storytelling aspect with me; it would be amazing to explore that further.

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