What is your thesis about?

“I studied the ‘how’ behind sustainable development in corporations. We know a lot about why businesses should become more sustainable and what they can do. People use terms like sustainable business model innovation and circular economy, but if you really study the literature, you see that there is relatively little attention for the ‘how’ question. That’s really the million-dollar question: if businesses want to become more sustainable, how do they go about it?”

“You can optimise existing processes or radically innovate by developing new products or services. Particularly in the case of radical innovation, you can use a social problem as the starting point, where lots of profit and impact can be gained. For businesses, that is very high on the agenda. But it is also the hardest to achieve.”

How did you conduct your research?

“I interviewed a total of two hundred executives, senior managers and mid-level managers at seven multinationals: Unilever, Philips, Johnson & Johnson, Akzo Nobel, Interface, UBS and Pearson. There, I studied how enterprising employees develop and shape sustainable innovative solutions and ideas in big organisations.

“The next angle was what role senior managers play to actually move from a sustainable business strategy to sustainable products and services. Another question was how an environment can be created at organisation level which stimulates sustainable business model innovation, in other words innovations in how you create value for the client and deliver and retain value as an organisation in a sustainable way.”

Thijs Geradts op de dag van zijn promotie – eigen foto
Thijs Geradts at home at the day of his PhD defense Image credit: Own archive

What were your main conclusions?

“Actually, you see that if a business wants to become more sustainable, the existing processes and systems do not stimulate sustainable strategy. For employees, it is therefore always a struggle to manoeuvre through the organisation. It is therefore important to structure your organisation at all levels in such a way that sustainable innovation flourishes, institutionally, strategically, and operationally.

“I also saw that, if you are engaged in social innovation for the over four billion people who live on less than five dollars a day, for example, as an employee in a big multinational you can harness emotions. You need a socially feel good vibe because such innovations are often difficult to sell internally. That’s because you are working for people who don’t have much to spend and in developing countries, you may encounter more corruption or difficult legislation and regulations. Businesses prefer to sell products to rich Dutch or Americans, they aren’t familiar with that environment. Employees can harness emotions to ask help from colleagues, guide the product through the organisation and keep the product alive if it is not initially profitable.”

How did you get involved with this subject?

“I got the inspiration during my studies when I saw Feike Sijbesma from DSM give a presentation about cattle feed that they’d developed, which resulted in cattle emitting over 25 percent less methane. In terms of pollution, a cow is the same as a BMW, so that’s a huge difference.

“I’ve always been interested in social entrepreneurship; people who establish a company to resolve a social or ecological problem. However, I noticed that big companies were relatively less engaged in that, despite its huge potential: they have the resources, the power and their chains extend to all corners of the world. As I learned from Sijbesma’s presentation, companies were engaged but little was written about it. From that idea, I started at Nyenrode. After a year, I applied to be a lecturer in Rotterdam where I was able to do my PhD.”

Promotie G.J. (Gijs) Custers 0421-008 – Levien Willemse

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One of your statements is: “Whichever ideology comes after capitalism, it should come soon and be correct.”

“Within the capitalist system, profit is still the most important thing. The idea has always been that inequality and environmental pollution will be resolved by the market, but it doesn’t work like that. You need a strong government. During my research, I sometimes asked myself: what am I actually doing? It’s nice and certainly important that all these employees try to get something done in their organisation, but actually it’s a symptom of something that doesn’t work. If sustainability depends on people who break the rules and need to harness emotions to get anything done internally, this is proof that the system is basically not functioning. The solution lies several levels up and that’s what academics should be asking big questions about.”

How did you find doing your PhD?

“I loved it. I enjoyed the freedom and being able to go into businesses under the white flag of science. People are also keen to share their knowledge about this subject because anyone involved with sustainability is really passionate about it. So, there’s an energy and willingness to get things done. The downside is that they are always fighting a losing battle. Many people no longer work for those companies. And that’s a negative aspect in my thesis.”

You thank your family and girlfriend concisely with a poem by Toon Hermans entitled ‘Bedankt voor alles’ [Thanks for everything].

“I come from Sittard and Hermans is a well-known resident of the town. Some people thank more or less everyone who has been involved in any way at all. My parents, grandparents, sisters and girlfriend were all amazing in their support and encouragement. I felt the most effective way to thank them was: ‘Bedankt voor alles’. You don’t need many words to speak from the heart.”