Changemakers for the future

Gerbrand Haverkamp, World Benchmarking Alliance

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series, we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Gerbrand Haverkamp, Executive Director of the World Benchmarking Alliance.

“World leaders need to focus on corporate accountability”

I was born in 1986 and there was never a moment in my life when environmental concerns were not live. Growing up I was aware of issues like acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. It was part of growing up and I never questioned that I’d try and do something about it. It’s been more about looking at what I can contribute within such a huge space.

About five years ago, I helped set up the World Benchmarking Alliance. Our aim is to measure the contribution and progress of the world’s 2,000 most influential companies towards delivering the Paris Agreement and the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).

I began thinking about how rankings can hold companies accountable about 10 years ago when I met Wim Leereveld who started the Access to Medicine Index. This ranks pharmaceutical companies on action they’re taking to expand access to medicines in low- and middle-income countries. It was a simple but effective lever to influence companies and encourage a race to the top. I found it really inspiring.

Ranking the seed industry

I started working for the Ministry of Agriculture in the Netherlands in 2010 and looking at where else we could apply this. Around that time, there was a lot of controversy about GMO and hybrid seeds and the impact on smallholder farmers. I wondered if we could create a similar ranking for the seed industry.

We had a round table event in Washington. All the seed companies sent people to talk about the ranking – even though we didn’t have one yet. During lunch, a person from one of the big seed companies came up to me and said: “We share your ambition. We also want to do lots of things to help small holder farmers. Maybe the most effective way would be to do this without a ranking.”

That’s when I thought: “But it’s the ranking that got you here.” For me, it was an “aha!” moment. I realised that when you start to measure things, it becomes consequential for the company.

From idea to action

After I left the government, I set up a foundation called Index Initiative to apply this to more industries. I talked to a number of governments, including the Dutch and UK governments. They liked the idea and provided some support but didn’t see how it would really succeed.

Then in 2017, the insurance company Aviva got involved. They said: “We want rankings like this because they’ll help us engage with the companies we invest in, and we can show this to our clients.” Through Aviva, the Business and Sustainable Development Commission and the UN Foundation came on board.

We began a global consultation in 2017 and went from Buenos Aires to Kuala Lumpur, to Nairobi, to New York. Finally, in September 2018, we launched the World Benchmarking Alliance at the UN General Assembly. Since then, we’ve assessed 1,500 of the world’s 2,000 most influential companies and built an alliance of 350 organisations. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved so far.

A balancing act

I’ve always thought that a benchmark for sustainability needs to represent the middle ground between governments, investors, companies and civil society organisations. When you find the middle ground it’s wonderful. But it also means you’re challenged by all sides.

If you move too much towards the companies, you get criticised by civil society. If you move too much towards civil society then the companies back out. Governments might say: “Why don’t companies pay for this themselves?” Investors might say: “That it’s not in the right format.”

There have been moments when I thought about giving up. But then there are moments when you bring all the different groups together, and they find a common language and step in. That’s what makes it worthwhile. It’s about constantly finding a balance between the different stakeholder groups, their needs, beliefs and perceptions.

Role of private sector

If I could speak on the main stage at COP28, I would say that there isn’t a single actor in society who moves without accountability. People have the greatest intentions. But if there’s no accountability, people don’t take the tough decisions.

If you look at it through an optimistic lens, the way we now talk about the role of the private sector has massively shifted. It’s no longer controversial to say that we won’t achieve the Paris Agreement or the UN Sustainable Development Goals without the private sector on board.

Whether that’s financial institutions, or companies operating in the real economy, we can’t get there without them. Now we need to take the next step.

Setting clear expectations

Currently, there isn’t single government, institution or stakeholder group that can, on their own, effectively hold companies accountable for their sustainability performance. That means leading companies don’t get rewarded and the ones lagging behind don’t get penalised. I believe that we can only close this gap if we make corporate accountability a collective effort.

This requires that we need to be clear about our shared expectations from a scientific and societal point of view. What do we actually expect from oil and gas companies, from airline companies, from tech companies, from food and agriculture companies? We need to create a mechanism that clarifies those expectations. Then we need to hold companies accountable.

World leaders needs to focus on corporate accountability to make progress in the next five to ten years. And that’s where the World Benchmarking Alliance wants to help.

Gravitating towards the centre

There lots of forces in the world that push people towards extremes. Or to their own sort of tribe. But all the decisions that will move us forward will have to be taken in the middle. So, I hope people keep gravitating towards the centre. That’s not a criticism of activism; our time requires activism. But there need to be enough people who take the momentum and bring it to the centre to work on tangible solutions. The people who will do that work are those who are willing listen to other tribes, other perspectives, other economic situations. If we can do that – as organisations, as people, as humanity – then I’m hopeful about the future.

Gerbrand Haverkamp is the Executive Director of the World Benchmarking Alliance. Gerbrand originally founded and led Index Initiative, one of WBA’s founding partners, where he led the global consultation on the WBA. Prior to this, Gerbrand worked for the Dutch Government in the areas of inclusive business, sustainable agricultural supply chains and food security.

The IKEA Foundation is supporting the World Benchmarking Alliance to develop benchmarks that compare how the world’s 2,000 most influential companies are contributing to the UN’s sustainable development goals.