Break the false dichotomy between “business” and “environment”. — There is no either / or in the ‘choice’ between business and environment. We should realize you cannot run an economically viable business without putting sustainability at the core of your strategy. And we should realize environmental and climate mitigation measures should be backed by an economic viable (financing) model to ensure success.
As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Arjen Vrielink.
After graduating from Wageningen University in 2001, Arjen started his career as a radar remote sensing specialist at SarVision. Six Years in he decided to look around and worked in various positions in the remote sensing and IT sector, including: technical consultant at an eLearning company, GIS analyst at a noise consultancy firm, product owner of an online geo-platform and optical remote sensing analyst at a water quality consulting company. When Niels asked him to rejoin forces to build up Satelligence, he was thrilled. It provided the opportunity to put all built up experience into practice together with the brightest and most cheerful bunch of people he ever worked with. Arjen collects books and music and rides bikes.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in Rosmalen, Brabant, a commuter town in the South of The Netherlands in the 80s and 90s. My high school was located 12km from my hometown which meant a lot of cycling, regardless of the weather. I have one brother, one father and one mother. If you would read up on generic, middle of the road Dutch family life in the 80s and 90s, that would be us. In 1995 I moved to Wageningen to study Tropical Landuse at Wageningen University. It was either that or history and philosophy. In the end, I decided to go to Wageningen because it has a really open culture and a broad offering of topics so I didn’t have to pin myself down to a specific topic immediately. In Wageningen, I specialized in studying tropical ecology and remote sensing and GIS, went to Indonesia to do fieldwork for my thesis and smoothly graduated after 6 years.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
I am certainly not a scientist and I find it hard to identify myself with the “environmental leader” label. Let’s say I am a leader by accident. I never aspired to be a leader or manager and I don’t have any ambitions (quite honestly, I find ambitions something for people without self-confidence, more on that later). But now I am one of the directors of a company that strives for a world with zero deforestation. How did that happen?
I am an open and curious person, interested in almost everything. But also very critical and skeptical and not afraid to voice that. It is these characteristics that helped me plough my way through the fields of several companies. By listening to what people were saying at conference tables and in offices instead of joining the shouting contest, I found that every organizational problem can be boiled down to a communication problem. I often found myself shedding light on problems, opening up stalemate positions or suggesting fresh perspectives, simply by rephrasing what other people had already said.
So maybe the “aha” moment in my life was one of these moments where I found all faces expectantly looking at me in the silence after a wild discussion; every organization problem is a communication problem.
The environmental part has always been there. During my studies in Wageningen, everybody was an environmentalist. And when everybody is an environmentalist, nobody is an environmentalist. It wasn’t really an issue. I think this is also the natural human state: humans used to be part of nature. But we evolved culturally and came to see ourselves as outside of nature, outside of the environment. If you think about it, it’s non-natural, strange and even self-destructing not to be an environmentalist.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
I would like to quote Pasteur here: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”. I like serendipity (finding things you were not looking for) and this quote is really about that. You have to be prepared to recognise the opportunities life presents you. One of my friends once said “Arjen, why are you always so lucky in finding great new jobs?”. Well, I am not more lucky than anyone else, it’s just that I judge chances that pass by differently. I noticed that I tend to focus on opportunities rather than downsides of chances. Moreover, I accept failure. Making choices is all about accepting failure.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
I will give one example. Our company, Satelligence is an initiative to address climate change and sustainability. The company was founded on the premise that we can only stop deforestation and save the planet by reaching out a helping hand to those responsible for this deforestation. Instead of taking an opposing stand and polarising the discussion, we offer services that help organizations get insights into when and where deforestation is happening in their supply chain. With this information they can take action by sending in field teams, engaging with suppliers or even stop sourcing from unsustainable producers or traders. We found that not a single evil person is working at the so-called ‘evil’ companies. Often, there are very motivated and environmentally engaged people really willing to change. They just don’t know where to start because they lack information. Every organization problem is a communication problem.
Currently, we are onboarding the front runners in sectors like commodity trading, Fast Consumer Goods Manufacturing and even asset management and investment funds. The early and late majority still need time but we are confident that one way or the other, those companies will embrace sustainable business models as well.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
As I said above, it’s strange and non-natural that we don’t live a sustainable lifestyle. It all comes down to human behaviour. I believe that most can be gained by simple tweaks in daily behaviour: if you live in a city and you have a car, get rid of the car and join a car sharing program. If your diet includes meat, have 1 or more meals per week without meat. When Corona is under control, commute to your office twice a week instead of 5 times.
These are small personal changes but have a huge impact if a lot of people would do so.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
I don’t think the problem is that we have to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability. I think the next generation is already engaged. The problem is that it is the current generation of decision-makers that needs to be convinced of the urgency of climate change. So the question would rather be “how do we empower the next generation?”. Here’s some things you could do to empower and inspire the younger generation:
1. Stop depoliticizing decision making.
We are slowly awakening from the neoliberal nightmare where politics has become a pseudo-meritocracy in the hands of an intellectual elite. Decisions are made by ‘experts’, ‘ai’ and opaque ‘models’. A technocratic ruling class is investing in ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘innovation’ increasing the gap between theoretically educated (80% of Dutch parliamentarians and journalists have a higher education degree) and the practically educated (who are paying the bill for these investments). We should (re)politicize decision making based on open debate in the public domain by (representatives) of the whole society.
2. Break the false dichotomy between “business” and “environment”.
There is no either / or in the ‘choice’ between business and environment. We should realize you cannot run an economically viable business without putting sustainability at the core of your strategy. And we should realize environmental and climate mitigation measures should be backed by an economic viable (financing) model to ensure success.
3. Activism is a start, not the end.
As argued before, ‘environmental activist’ should really not be a term. Environmentalism should not only focus on its activist, watchdog / putting issues on the agenda role. They should be (and are) moving into new and existing political organization aiming for cultural change. Only when environmentalism becomes part of our culture, we can make the behavioural changes needed to move to a more sustainable lifestyle.
4. Don’t fight evil companies, join them.
Evil companies don’t exist, there’s only ignorant people. Or so my naive world view dictates me. My opinion is that companies should be more aware of their role and place in society and take up the responsibility accordingly. But companies will not change by themselves. They need fresh ideas and information and they get those from fresh new employees. That is you. I do see this already happening. I did a small presentation for a team at one of the big four accountants. I was expecting mainly financial business remarks and questions. But surprisingly there was a lot of well informed thought and lively discussion about environmentalism. Not because those people all studied in Wageningen. But because environmentalism is something which is discussed among the younger generation.
5. Be aware that data and technology are not neutral.
Since the younger generations are always online and constantly faced with a stream of information, it is important that they have at least some elemental form of digital literacy: digital hygiene, privacy, bias in algorithms. As stated before, I believe that every organizational problem is a communication problem. Media (online) and content (data) are important aspects of communication so it’s easy to imagine the Internet as both a blessing and a curse for communication. Don’t get sucked into the post-truth maelstrom or you’ll have nothing left to argue other than “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man”.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
Quite simple. If businesses don’t adopt environmentally sustainable business models and practices, they will sooner or later not be a business anymore. Imagine you are a chocolate factory. You source cocoa from West Africa. If you are a big company, you need a reliable supply of a large volume of cocoa. Not only today and tomorrow. Also next year, the year after and so on for the coming 10 to 20 years. You decide to invest in your supply chain to ensure supply quality and quantity. But where do you invest? Because of climate change, it might not be possible anymore to grow cocoa in West Africa in 20 years. So you need to move sourcing to another area suitable for cocoa farming or invest in adapting climate resilient mitigation measures like regenerative farming. Whatever you decide, sustainability and climate change will be among the important selection criteria.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Life is not a Disney movie. The Swiss author Pascal Mercier (pseudonym of philosopher Peter Bieri) wrote in Nighttrain to Lisbon:
“(…) It is a mistake to believe that the crucial moments of a life when its habitual direction changes forever must be loud and shrill dramatics, washed away by fierce internal surges. This is a kitschy fairy tale started by boozing journalists, flashbulb-seeking filmmakers and authors whose minds look like tabloids. In truth, the dramatics of a life-determining experience are often unbelievably soft. It has so little akin to the bang, the flash, of the volcanic eruption that, at the moment it is made, the experience is often not even noticed. When it deploys its revolutionary effect and plunges a life into a brand-new light giving it a brand-new melody, it does that silently and in this wonderful silence resides its special nobility.”
I really like this observation. For myself, most of my life-determining experiences I recognized in retrospect. I did experience and appreciate those moments but never realized how influential they would be only until after they had passed for a long time.
Very much so for the people who helped me get where I am today. The obvious candidates would be my parents, wife, friends, teachers, mentors or my dog. While those certainly didn’t obstruct my path in life, they are not the ones with the most impact on my perspective on life. The people whom I’m most grateful to are what I like to call collaterally affected people. While fetching your bike to go home, your shy colleague from legal says your lunch presentation was really inspirational. When running into a vague contact on the train, he tells you inspired him to change jobs based on a casual conversation you had. Or an overlooked talent that unexpectedly flowers by giving the right attention and some self-confidence. I am usually not on a mission to convince people of my opinion or preaching an activist message. I just like to tell random stories about life. When those random stories unintendedly and unexpectedly inspire people, that is the biggest compliment I can get. Therefore, I would really like to thank the people who shared these silent moments of nobility with me.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
That’s simple. Start small and local. Be nice to the people around you and listen to them and their stories. Start with yourself. If you cannot inspire yourself, how will you ever inspire others?
I often see people that seem to think that leadership is about strength and power, building and broadcasting an inspiring message, then gain a large following and change the world!. It’s not. Leadership is about vulnerability.
Because the true question is: why do people even need leaders or influencers? The answer is fear of failure and uncertainty. People don’t like to make choices that have an uncertain outcome. The Tool song “Opiate” starts with the following lines:
“Choices always were a problem for you.
What you need is someone strong to guide you.”
There is the answer to leadership. Leaders show their vulnerable side; they take responsibility for their choices and accept failure is an option so you don’t have to. Weak leaders forget about the latter part: failure is an option. They don’t recognize the moments when life is trying to tell them something, stick to their convictions and inexorably go down dramatically.
In short: be humble, don’t be afraid to fail. Be your own leader.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
Be confident that the future will bring what you expect of it.
As explained above, change is almost never immediately apparent. The result of your actions will probably not immediately or directly show. But you need to be patient and confident that they will. Those two words are my life’s motto. In Dutch: “vertrouwen en geduld” which roughly translates to “faith / trust / confidence and patience”. You need to have self-confidence and faith in and trust the people around you to be able to be patient. Being patient allows you to give life a chance to find its way and reveal its beauty. I often see impatience caused by a lack of self-confidence or lack of faith in other people which leads to even less confidence and faith etc, etc.
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This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for having me, it was a pleasure to do the interview.