At first glance, it isn’t easy to find a common denominator between the Blue Economy – the sustainable extension of the idea of ocean economy – and European SMEs. Still, a leitmotif was clear across two presentations by Stefano Pogutz, the recently appointed director of SDA Bocconi’s Full-Time MBA: sustainability was the key word of both the One Ocean Foundation’s summit at Borsa Italiana and the presentation meeting of “Generali SME EnterPRIZE” White Paper. It is on the actual application of this concept that both the economic growth prospects in the various countries and, especially, the hopes for a future of the global ecosystem are based.
Ocean health begins on land
As a professor of Sustainability, Pogutz was able to highlight the connections between fields that are seemingly far apart. In the first of the two meetings, he did so by presenting the Ocean Disclosure Initiative, a new methodology for measuring the impact of businesses on marine ecosystems, conceived and designed by the One Ocean Foundation – whose Scientific committee Pogutz chairs – in partnership with SDA Bocconi, McKinsey & Company and CSIC. By broadening the perspective of analysis: “To eliminate or mitigate the pressure of human activities on marine ecosystems, it is not enough to look only to sectors that directly interact with the sea, such as maritime transportation or fishing; all industries need to be involved, even those operating on dry land. According to the latest studies, most challenges to the health of the oceans, such as pollution from plastic or mounting acidification caused by carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere, originate on land.”
The concept of “sustainability” was not conceived today, we have been talking about sustainable development since the ‘80s/1980s – Pogutz continued – and although it has been “institutionalized”, there are still many challenges. At first the Ocean Disclosure Initiative mapped the existing sustainability evaluation systems, trying to integrate metrics, so far mainly financial, with “science-based” criteria, enabling companies, finance and science to communicate with each other. As with climate issues, only with the involvement of these three actors is it possible to plan and implement change in what is now an increasingly tight timeframe. “We have also created a sort of sustainability rating for companies, based on a set of indicators identified by the scientific community. The result is a matrix indicating the 17 higher-impact industries, on one side, and 11 indicators of pressure on marine ecosystems, on the other.”
The effectiveness of this framework can only be assured by considering the complexity of its elements and the need for a comprehensive approach and ongoing fine tuning. “We are pursuing five objectives:”, Pogutz said, “raising corporate attention and awareness, fostering transparency, pushing operational response, measuring risk and encouraging best practices.”
Sustainability and SMEs – a marriage of (mutual) convenience
SMEs are key in the European sustainability agenda and sustainability is a strategic factor for SMEs. This is the premise at the heart of “SME EnterPRIZE”, Generali and SDA Bocconi’s White Paper presented by Stefano Pogutz in Brussels at the meeting “SMEs: Drivers of Sustainable Economic Recovery and Growth in Europe”.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are a pillar of the economy in the continent and engaging them is crucial to the success of Europe’s sustainable transition. On the other hand, sustainability is now an essential development factor for SMEs, especially after the pandemic, not only because of the innovative drive it has produced but also because it can provide these businesses with access to certified supply chains, better financing conditions, strategic partnerships. The White Paper aims at analyzing the approach of European SMEs to sustainability, the challenges and the drivers of success.
The paper also seems to highlight a singular paradox: the approach of European SMEs to sustainability is still informal and not structured, with margins for growth, yet these businesses are doing more than they realize or are able to communicate. Some numbers reveal this: just 13% of European SMEs indicate that they have adopted sustainability strategies and 21% that they are in the process of doing so; but many more have actually introduced policies to ensure employee welfare (76% in Austria, 68% in Hungary, 66% in Italy and Spain, 65% in Germany), environmental protection (69% in Spain, 67% in Italy, 66% in Switzerland) as well as support of social, educational, cultural and charitable activities in their local communities (for instance, 84% of German SMEs).
The White Paper then identifies 5 major barriers to SME sustainable transition – lack of internal skills and financial resources, institutional factors and bureaucracy, lack of perceived customer demand for some sustainable products and lack of dedicated tools for SMEs – and responds with 15 initiatives, and financial and non-financial instruments, ranging from training to ESG-linked financial instruments, new SME regulation, ESG criteria in public procurement and new reporting tools. “Policy makers, big corporations, finance, academia and research”, Pogutz concluded, “are all called upon to create public-private partnerships to support SMEs in a coordinated way.”
SDA Bocconi School of Management