How Aker BioMarine has implemented the SDGs: Interview with Cilia Indahl

Cilia has analysed more than 400 business models to understand what makes them sustainable. She is formerly a trainee at the UN and is now Director of Sustainability at Aker BioMarine. We sat down with her to discuss the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how companies can best implement them.

Your CV lists what you have done: You were at the climate negotiations in Rio, analyzed more than 400 business models as part of your Master degree at HEC Paris, assisted the negotiations of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in New York and now you are Director of Sustainability at Aker BioMarine. But a CV doesn’t say why you did it all. What drives you?

For me it has always been about the potential we have to do things better; better for our planet, but also for ourselves as people. I believe we can design society to encourage sustainable business and behavior. But instead of waiting for the right regulations to come into place, businesses and communities can start to build best practice that can guide policy. I think it is key that we all start walking in the right direction. This is why I have worked so hard to understand what it takes for a company to succeed with sustainability, and how both businesses and individuals can be encouraged to start their journey.

But for some reason we think sustainability is all or nothing. But you are suggesting that we should accept that it is ok not to be perfect as long as we do something?

Yes, I think we have to overcome perfectionism, and just start walking. I want best practices to be accessible to everyone. And I think we have to honor intention, and cheer on the companies that have the courage to lead the way. Same goes for individuals. I think we have to start adapting our behavior to what we would like to see become the norm. When I get a take-away coffee for example I use my glass bottle so that I don’t have to use their disposable cups. I think we can have more by having less. At the same time, it is important to me that the changes we make do not reduce the quality of our lives. Sustainable living should increase quality and inspire others to do the same.

How has Aker BioMarine implemented the SDGs?

Businesses need to understand how the company makes sense in the new business context. What resources and capabilities does the company have? Where can the business contribute to achieving the goals? Based on this, the goals can be included in the company’s strategy to engage with its employees, and drive initiatives and programs. Just like with buying Guarantees of Origin, companies first need to know how much energy they use, they need to want to reduce their emissions before they buy certificates that document the origin of the energy they consume. I see many companies that start their journey towards carbon neutrality with planting trees, which should really be the last resort to carbon-offset the operations you cannot power with green energy.

Businesses need to prioritize a subset of the SDGs without hindering the progress of the others.

At Aker BioMarine, the SDGs are part of our strategy. We had in-depth discussions with the executive team, we ran a strategy seminar where all employees learnt about the SDGs and what they are relevant to our business.

For Aker BioMarine to successfully implement the SDGs we had to prioritize the SDGs aligned with our core business, without neglecting the other SDGs. Through Facebook at Work, our internal communications tool, we had a poll where all employees could vote on which SDGs the company could contribute the most. It was interesting to see how much people in the company identify with the SDGs and agree on what our focus should be. Discussing the SDGs gives corporate culture a boost and provides meaning in our everyday work life. We are no longer just fishing for krill in the Antarctic in a sustainable way — we are ensuring healthy oceans and healthy lives. So today the following SDGs are a core part of our business strategy:
● Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition
● Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
● Goal 12: Ensure Sustainable consumption and production patterns
● Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources

It is critical that enough companies take the SDGs seriously, making it easier to raise the bar and easier for governments to move forward on their national commitments as well.

Cilla Indahl, #SDGLead 223.jpg - cut
Pictures: SDG Leadership Seminar 6 June 2016. Erik Krafft


From trainee in the UN to being on stage and launching the SDGs in Norway at #SDGLead on the 6th of June, what are your three reflections?

The three key reflections from my side are:

1. The benefits of an all inclusive plan: Anything in a plan will guide us. The SDGs are a broad agenda, but will guide us in the right direction.
2. The SDGs are not another CSR reporting scheme: The SDGs are not just a tool to report on what you are doing, but the SDGs should drive what you do and how you do it.
3. Do something, rather than nothing: Nobody knows exactly how to implement the SDGs in every business context or policy process. But it is better for us to start, share our lessons learnt along the way and make progress together, than wait until it is too late.


Recently Cilia you were on a ship in the Antarctic to see your operations. What do you remember the most?

Before the boat trips, we were at a conference about climate change and the future of Antarctica. Conversations with the local organisations are critical. You don’t know the biggest risk if you don’t talk to the people who care. And I guess seeing the animals. Standing on Antarctica, a huge sheet of ice surrounded by ocean, reinforced what drives me: we as businesses and we as humans are so vulnerable and earth is our only home. We need to take care of what brought us here. We have no other choice and the responsibility is ours. Not the next generation’s to fix.

You analyzed 400 sustainable business models. What were your conclusions?

When I was writing my master’s thesis on sustainable business at HEC Paris I became totally obsessed with business model innovation for sustainability. Who are the companies that manage to innovate the dominant business model of their industry by incorporating sustainability, and at the same time make money? How can others learn from them?

I went on a year-long search. I interviewed experts and analyzed over 400 business model innovations for sustainability. It became evident that there is an art to sustainable business modeling, but that sustainability can easily be hatched. These companies are not conceiving something completely new, but rather combining existing business model patterns with the success criteria of corporate sustainability.

What are the three pieces of advice you would give to other executives who are working on the SDGs and sustainability?

Three experiences I’d like to share to answer that question:
1. Business is about profit: It is not a charity. The best you can do for your company is to show how the SDGs are strengthening your business.
2. Be transparent: Do not be afraid to share; internally and externally. We are all trying to figure this out so involve your colleagues and share your experiences with the sustainability community.
3. Reach out: Talk to others about what has worked for them in their industry and your experiences in working with the SDGs. SDG 17 is about partnerships so let’s practice it.

Follow Cilia Indahl on Twitter