Can we all speak one universal language for managing sustainability, please?
GSES is a start-up making waves in the sustainability space. It was recently the talk of the town, thanks to a cash injection from well-known Dutch venture capitalists. Meanwhile, company CEO Kelly Ruigrok (32) is busy cutting her way through the jungle of global certifications and standards to provide one single universal system for sustainability performance. Put simply: one universal language. But there is also a major problem, says Kelly: “Telling the story of how sustainable you are is not effective anymore, because everybody says they are sustainable.”
How did your journey into sustainability begin?
Back in 2016 I had just had a baby and I was living on the minimum wage. I discovered that while I could not afford healthy food for my daughter, I could afford unhealthy food. So, I wanted to know more about the sustainability of products for her. I also I wanted to do something to change the world, but I had no idea how to do it. When I was looking at these baby products, I found so many certifications, labels, and methodologies to measure sustainability, I could not sort out the wood from the trees, it was so complicated.
What was your answer?
I was thinking about it and concluded that the world turns around law and regulations, mostly based on internationally accepted standards and norms. So, I thought, let’s create one standard which covers everything which makes the world better. And that became the idea. I began by asking public organisations and private companies which did not seem to have clear sustainability policies why they were not trying to help change the world for the better. They all had roughly the same answer: “we don’t know which certificate or label, or system to use, because a lot of them are sector-specific, or country specific, and there are a lot of them!” But everyone we asked was convinced they wanted to be part of the change and I wanted to stimulate that. So, I founded the National Sustainability Institute of the Netherlands in 2017.
What was the next step?
We then researched all the certifications, labels and methodologies which were already out there, and found out what they are measuring. So, for example, which topic of sustainability did they cover, and how were they verified: independently, or not at all, or through a third-party? We obtained all the knowledge of all the existing certification schemes, labels, and methods. The we made an over-arching benchmark using all the internationally accepted standards which are already being used to measure sustainability and put that into one system. So that’s what we did: it became the Global Sustainable Enterprise Standard.
Two years later it was time to grow again, what happened?
In 2019 we took our standard and made it into an online platform. From day one we knew that an online platform must make it very easy, and fun, to measure sustainability performance. We also knew that companies and organisations wanted to measure not only their own sustainability performance, but also that of their supply chain and products. When we launched the platform, we already had some great ambassadors in the Netherlands, and slowly our international community began to grow. This became the Global Sustainable Enterprise System, to which we added the Global Sustainable Footprint Standard and the Global Sustainable Metastandard.
What kind of clients did you have?
We started in the maritime sector with Boskalis and Van Oort. I’m from Rotterdam. Then we moved to building, construction and banking and insurance. And once ABN AMRO and Univé started working with our system to measure their own performance, but also that of their supply chains, it was the beginning of a major expansion. Our company now has around 70,000 customers and operates in 110 countries: that took three years. We have proven to be quite scalable.
How many languages (in terms of sustainability and certification) are already being spoken worldwide?
There are an awful lot of languages being spoken and everyone is looking for the holy grail which is the universal language of sustainability. That is also what our mission is, basically. Before we started, you had a lot of solutions, but none which really served the market by making it easier and more cost-efficient to measure sustainability. We worked together with standardisation organisations but also all the experts in the field of sustainability. And our standard is managed by a board of experts and a technical committee which represents our clients, auditors, and certification institutions. We also work with experts on all the topics which are covered by our system.
Why should a company or government or investors or customers be interested in speaking your language?
One: it makes it easier. Two: it makes it tangible. So, what is sustainability, right? A lot of people think it is basically CO2 and a certain amount of the social aspect. Then others consider circular economy, biodiversity and more. There are a lot of topics, but it’s very important to spread that knowledge. What we do with our system is we basically help procurement consultants, investors or bankers that are serving clients, to help their clients or suppliers or companies to understand what their sustainability initiatives are and how they are measured.
What about consumers, like young mothers, for example?
We are now helping consumers as well: for example, if you visit a Xenos homewares store or Wibra clothes store you can see the sustainability score and data for individual products. Our system now also communicating with end-consumers. That means that our language is translatable: and that’s why companies come to us, because they are looking for a way to measure their clients or their loans, or their supply chain and consumer products in one over-arching manner.
How are you using the power of end-consumers?
We have a new thing: “fact checks”. These are like mystery shopper audits on individual products. A company or a consumer can simply click a button to request a fact-check and select the product they want to check, mention why they want to check it, and on which KPIs. Then it gets done. Companies must pay for this service, but consumers get this for free, because consumers oversee the community, and the world, in the end. These are new self-regulatory factors which we have added to our system.
Are you disrupting the sustainability market?
We are not only stirring up the sustainability and certification markets, but also the auditing market. This is because we also wanted to enable auditing for SME companies for pricing. So, we now have price arrangements made with our partners that they can offer us in exchange for a minimum number of audits, a better price, so that we can offer very low prices for independent auditing.
Sustainable investments are often subject to greenwashing: how can you be sure your databases are not full of fake sustainability?
It is important to note that a lot of rating systems are not independently verified or audited. At GSES we created mandatory independent auditing to enable participants to get a score. So, large participant either already been audited under the watch of the Council of Accreditation, or they must have an ISO certificate or similar accredited certification.
But small businesses can input their own data into your system: how do you make sure their input is legitimate?
If businesses are inputting their own data, they can audit it via a desk audit, or through an on-site audit which is also performed by independent certification institutions that are working under the watch of the Council of Accreditation in their region.
How can your system help the climate?
By making sure companies do good business and do not do harm to the environment. In the end, it is the consumers and the end-clients who are going to determine whether that is going to work or not. If the consumer what the environmental impact which their purchases have or the producers from whom they are buying, that’s a good thing. And when you can do that with a lot of people, you can make a lot of impact.
What is your advice to young people who want to help the planet, but don’t really know how to — like you back in the day?
It first takes an idea and a lot of belief. Then you need people within organisations who believe in the same mission which you have. People who are intrinsically motivated to really change the world. Many people thought I was really naive when I started this, but now we’re five years down the line and it has worked out so far…
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