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INTERVIEW #11 : The Club of Excellence in Sustainability bets on the circular economy in 2019

Posted on: 18.01.2019

The Club de Excelencia en Sostenibilidad (Club of Excellence in Sustainability) is a business association bringing together major companies who believe that sustainable growth is the way forward for business, society and the environment. It seeks and promotes dialogue with stakeholders and the exchange of best practices among Spanish businesses seeking to be both competitive and sustainable in increasingly complex and informed global markets. 

In its ambition to be the “reference business forum for sustainable business development”, the Club stages conferences, provides benchmarking tools for sustainable development and organises activities to encourage greater corporate social responsibility (CSR), including workshops, projects, training, awards and publications. Its members and leaders also explore ways to establish more public-private partnerships and collaboration with related associations and administrations in Spain and abroad. Indeed, the Club has signed several cooperation agreements including one with the Regional Government of Andalucia with the aim of preserving the environment, defending good governance within companies and empowering the region’s business and financial community.

With its now vast experience in business sustainability and CSR issues, EREK News asked the Club’s Chairman Juan Alfaro to speak more about its origins, the challenges it faces and how large companies deal with smaller players in their value chain as the society and the economy evolves. 

  • What is the origin of the Club de Excelencia en Sostenibilidad and how does it work? What hurdles did you face while setting it up and how did you overcome them?

The Club was born about 18 years ago when a group of companies concerned about sustainability issues took steps to reinterpret and develop CSR from an overly technical concept into a more strategic tool. Members share good practices and foster dialogue and excellence through innovative CSR actions that bring out the best in participating companies and help society.

At the beginning, the association faced several challenges including a general lack of awareness about this new paradigm in Spain, commercial priorities which saw sustainability as more of an expense than an investment, and weak government policies to encourage potential ‘green’ entrepreneurs. We still face these hurdles, and many others, even today. Nevertheless, a growing number of companies are formulating CSR strategies as the advantages (internal and external) become more widely known. Likewise, we have observed an increasing role of governments in promoting CSR through different public and regional policies.

  • What is the Club’s approach to working with SMEs in the value chain? Are there any lessons you’ve learnt to help suppliers/SMEs wishing to follow your lead?

The term ‘successive approximation processes’ applies here, as more and more SMEs assimilate CSR strategies into their businesses and realise the benefits. Large companies have begun to include guidelines on corporate responsibility when selecting suppliers. This means good CSR performance is increasingly likely to become a point of differentiation and selling point for smaller businesses.

We have also observed a greater role played by governments in promoting CSR among SMEs. Organisations like the Club de Excelencia en Sostenibilidad in Spain and EREK at the EU level can provide SMEs with tools to better incorporate CSR elements into their operations. We have many publications, methodologies and practical cases that can guide companies in this direction and show the added value of the decision. The transversal and multidisciplinary nature of CSR means, effectively, that we all have a degree of co-responsibility to share experiences and knowledge to achieve wider sustainability goals. 

  • What are the most pressing challenges companies (large or small) face in Spain to meet their sustainability ambitions?

CSR has gained ground among corporate hierarchies thanks to heavier regulatory requirements, pressure from investors, and growing demand for information from a more aware consumer. However, there are still big challenges facing Spanish companies trying to be more resource efficient, decarbonise production, develop sustainable mobility, and reduce gender inequality and wage disparities. On the latter topic, the Club is developing a methodology that helps companies calculate and tackle their wage gap. 

In terms of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), many companies in Spain are still struggling to select and align their business strategies to make a real impact. Technological transformation is another significant challenge they face in the years to come as it inevitably leads to major change and potential job losses.

  • You are planning to attend the EREK Madrid workshop on the circular economy and business: What do you hope to share and take home from the event? What is the network’s position on eco-design and CE principles? How can EREK help the network achieve its goals?

We are organising and participating in this workshop because we are really betting on the circular economy for truly achieving sustainable development. We started last year by setting up the Spanish Observatory on Circular Economy, which has become a reference forum for dialogue between companies, public administrations and experts. It helps them monitor the situation nationally and internationally, and encourages the adoption of good practices and promotion of relevant policies in Spain. 

We plan to publish a yearly report on observed advances in the circular economy with recommendations for both public administrations and companies. So, the take home from the EREK event is that our partner companies learn more about the circular economy, eco-design, product life cycles and efficiency. We would like to gather a set of recommendations from all the experts joining us during the workshop. 

  • Anything else you want to share with EREK readers? 

In 2019, we have a variety of initiatives lined up, but the ones I would like to emphasise most are our nation-wide roadshows that we will be organising on Sustainable Mobility and Circular Economy. As mentioned, we are also finalising the wage gap guidelines for companies.  The Club’s successful online webinars will carry on this year, covering a wider range of CSR themes. They are presented by representatives from our members and provide a window into how these Spanish companies implement innovative CSR actions. Our next one is on Circular Economy Planning by Mahou San Miguel, the leading brewer in Spain. For more information, we post all our upcoming events in our webpage: www.clubsostenibilidad.org

Last year we set up the Spanish Observatory on Circular Economy, which has become a reference forum for dialogue between companies, public administrations and experts