Tradition instead of trendiness: At Vontobel sustainability is not a buzzword
Interview with Natalie Ernst, Corporate Sustainability Manager at Vontobel
Sustainability is a hot topic, found on every marketing agenda today. But companies who are only out to use sustainability as a way to improve their image rarely follow their words with deeds. In order to communicate credibly to the outside world, sustainability must be a part of the corporate culture that the firm actually lives. In this interview, Natalie Ernst explains why she found the right conditions at Vontobel for sustainability to take root.
Natalie Ernst is the Corporate Sustainability Manager at Vontobel
Ms. Ernst, you are the Corporate Sustainability Manager at Vontobel. How sustainably do you live your personal life?
For once, that's an area where I don’t strictly separate my professional and private life. For example, take CO2 emissions. Not long ago, we took the family on an eight-hour train journey to a popular destination. We enjoyed the scenery and legroom and talked with fellow travelers. Compared to flying – assuming the flight were on time – we needed a maximum of two additional hours. But overall, we experienced a trip that was much nicer and more relaxed.
This proves to me why sustainability is the opposite of short-term, quick profit. More and more, I ask myself the question: What can I do to make my life happy and satisfying? And the more I ask myself this question, the more sustainably I live. It’s not about consuming more but enjoying what you already have, and spending more time with family and friends.
The term "sustainability" is a buzzword these days. How does Vontobel set itself apart from the marketing mainstream that is simply chasing a trend?
If you trace Vontobel’s history back to when it was founded, you can see that responsible entrepreneurship has always been an inherent part of its corporate culture in different respects.
It used to be called “choose a moderate approach”. This credo has shaped the bank’s business policy in many different ways. For example, already back in 1989 Dr. Hans Vontobel launched the Hans Vontobel Prize for Agronomy. At that time pesticides were a big topic. What he believed was that we could enjoy long-term benefits from the output of the agricultural industry only if it isn’t trying to maximize short-term profits. Incidentally, the prize is still awarded today to young doctoral students in the agricultural sciences.
In addition to these environmental perspectives, issues such as corporate governance were also a concern of the Vontobel families...
That’s right. As early as 1987, Vontobel decided to cease proprietary trading activities, and introduced the "one share - one vote" principle in 2001. The Vontobel families are also known for their social commitment. As you can see, since sustainable thinking and acting already begins with the company’s founders, I can personally identify with this mindset very well and look forward in my role to establishing further activities we can undertake to achieve a sustainable future.
Why is it interesting for investors today to participate in sustainable investment opportunities?
On the one hand, we can observe investors who choose sustainable investments out of conviction, because they want to undergird their personal values with financial support as well. A second motivation is monetary considerations. Sustainable companies tend to expose themselves to smaller risks.
The Swiss Sustainable Finance Association recently published the "Market Report on Sustainable Investments 2018". Vontobel, with 8.9% market share, is in fourth place after such big firms as UBS and Credit Suisse. That is really respectable. The year before, our share was 6.6%. Our sustainably managed funds have risen from 11 billion Swiss francs in 2016 to almost 14 billion francs in 2017.
Apart from new financial products, how can Vontobel act sustainably at the company level?
For example, in the past year waste from electrical and electronic equipment was of great concern to us. In order to be ready for the migration to Windows10, we had to exchange around a thousand desktop computers. Simply disposing of them would have been possible – but an unfortunate way of going about it, because the devices were not really "old" by any stretch of the imagination. That is why Vontobel searched for a partner who could make sure the computers would be processed and re-utilized. We found what we were looking for in the charitable foundation "AfB social & green IT". For more than ten years, AfB has been acting as a specialist intermediary that cost-effectively remarkets high-quality used corporate IT equipment, placing it with private individuals and non-profit organizations.
As far as social sustainability is concerned, Vontobel has a long-standing partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross. What is behind this commitment?
Most people know the ICRC as an institution providing humanitarian aid. But in the face of increasingly protracted conflicts worldwide, the ICRC has become an indispensable political actor as well. In war zones that no one else has access to, the ICRC applies its considerable diplomatic skill which allows for a certain degree of stability to be maintained. Only then is it possible to send relief supplies into the regions affected.
Stability is of great importance to society as well as to companies such as Vontobel. That's why we've been working with the ICRC for over ten years. During the Christmas period, we also initiated a fundraising campaign for an ICRC project. For example, we donate a certain amount for each Christmas card that we send out, and in 2017 our employees made donations to an education project, as education is increasingly becoming a humanitarian need, especially in countries affected by drawn-out conflicts.
About Natalie Ernst
Natalie Ernst has been responsible for sustainability at Vontobel since 2015. Prior to that, she spent over ten years in various positions and as a corporate communications team leader for Credit Suisse and the sustainability rating agency Inrate. As a Certified Trainer for Leadership & Communication, she also advised professionals and executives on a freelance basis. She holds a degree in Applied Linguistics and Cultural Studies from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz.