Driving sustainability transformation: 6 lessons learned from our Sustainability Circle network

Our Sustainability Circle is a network to join forces and drive sustainable practices and the circular economy. The first-ever regional Sustainability Circle event took place in five cities across the DACH region. Explore the key learnings of many inspiring discussions here.

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Five host companies, across five cities in the DACH region, joined forces to discuss the circular economy.  

In the cities of Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, Zug, and Vienna a unique gathering, not just of minds, but of shared purpose, took place. For the first time, the Sustainability Circle met simultaneously in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria to hold ‘Regional Circles’. Why? Because together with our clients and partners, we believe that collaboration is key for addressing the major challenge of our time – sustainability.  

The focus of this regional gathering was circular economy, an essential paradigm shift in how we produce, consume, and manage resources. It’s a philosophy rooted in the belief that our planet's finite resources must be managed responsibly, ensuring their longevity for generations to come. At the core of this belief lies the understanding that sustainability cannot be achieved in isolation, as it requires collective action and shared learning. 

That’s precisely why we organised this event – to provide a platform for meaningful dialogue, knowledge exchange, and collaborative action. Our goal is to bring together companies, experts, and sustainability enthusiasts from different backgrounds and regions to accelerate the sustainable transformation our world needs. 

In this article, we’ll explore the important lessons we’ve gained from the events hosted at Eppendorf, De Longhi, CIRCULAR REPUBLIC, V-ZUG, and EVVA Sicherheitstechnologie, with the active involvement of BUKEA, Bundesverband Nachhaltige Wirtschaft, Yunus Environment Hub, STABL Energy, Carbotech, and the Circular Economy Forum Austria as well. We’ll also explore the insights, innovative ideas, and inspiring thoughts shared at the Regional Sustainability Circle.  

#1 Align sustainability strategy with company values for credible sustainability efforts    

The traditional focus on maximising shareholder value is evolving towards a stakeholder perspective, where companies are increasingly embracing the triple bottom line – profit, people, and planet (3P). This shift reflects a broader recognition that success is not only measured by financial gains. 

This sentiment was highlighted by V-ZUG’s Head of Sustainability Marcel Niederberger, who emphasised, ‘not only profit is important for our company’. For V-ZUG, this paradigm shift towards the 3P concept feels natural. With a longstanding focus on product longevity, the company’s commitment to sustainability aligns with its core values. By embracing the 3P framework, companies can authentically connect their DNA to the dimensions of planet and people, effectively communicating their sustainability efforts. 

#2 Explore innovative business models for sustainability 

In pursuit of sustainability it’s important to innovate business models, with the prime example being the ‘Product as a Service’ (PaaS) model. This approach involves keeping ownership and maintenance of the asset, which not only reduces misuse of the product but also offers increased performance and reliability to customers. Under this model, customers enjoy simplified business operations, usually at the same or even reduced price. Additionally, it’s not just beneficial for customers, manufacturing companies also find adopting this model advantageous. 

By keeping ownership, companies ensure that the product is returned, allowing for evaluation for refurbishment or dismantling. This promotes resource efficiency and reduces waste. Additionally, this model enables companies to experiment with other circular economy practices. For example, they can install pre-owned components, like engines, to gain insights and knowledge on refurbishment, the learnings from which can then be applied to new products as well.  

#3 Partner up for sustainable innovation 

In the context of sustainability, collaboration is key, especially when exploring new opportunities where risks are involved. Partnerships allow companies to pool resources, share expertise, and collectively tackle challenges, driving innovation towards more sustainable practices.    

An example of this is the collaboration between Zühlke and IonField Systems, a company that specialises in plasma cleaning technology. IonField Systems has partnered with Zühlke to analyse various use cases and modules of their plasma cleaning device. The goal was to determine when reusable items become more environmentally sustainable than disposable ones through cleaning and reuse cycles. Thanks to this collaboration, IonField Systems can now show that their plasma cleaning technology reduces the CO2 footprint by 60 to 90% compared to conventional disposable materials in most use cases.  

#4 Say yes to engineering innovation, but not without consumer education 

While engineering plays a vital role in decoupling carbon emissions from resource usage, it’s crucial for companies to recognise that efficiency is just one aspect of achieving sustainability. Expanding responsibilities to encompass educating customers and raising awareness about more sustainable habits and usage is equally important. This concept emphasises that sustainability efforts extend beyond the production phase and into the domain of consumer behaviour. 

Digitalisation, particularly through the integration of artificial intelligence (AI), plays a pivotal role in achieving this expanded scope of responsibility. AI enables companies to gain insights into consumer habits, monitor usage patterns, and provide personalised recommendations for more sustainable practices. By leveraging digital tools, companies can empower consumers to make informed choices and actively participate in the journey towards sustainability. 

#5 Acknowledge that without data there’s no sustainability improvement 

As argued in the Sustainability Circle by Zühlke’s Sustainability Strategy Specialist, Ronny Hoffmann, ‘without data, there’s no sustainability improvement’. This quote highlights the crucial role that data plays in driving sustainability change. It serves as a reminder that any sustainability effort needs to be supported by data. For a deep dive on how ESG data and AI can support your sustainability transformation, check out our white paper on navigating the ESG IT tool jungle

As EU regulations on eco-design, supply chain transparency, and sustainability reporting, such as the Eco-design for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR), Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDD), and the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), emerge, data collection is also becoming increasingly important. 

These regulations involve data collection along the value chain, emphasising the significance of supplier relationships. Technology, particularly certain IT tools, can assist in this process, enabling companies to derive new business value from collected data.  

#6 Listen to the concerns of other companies 

During the Regional Sustainability Circle, we uncovered common challenges faced by companies on their sustainability transformation journeys. 

One major hurdle is the pressure exerted by the upcoming sustainability regulations. Many companies struggle to understand the requirements and translate them into actionable strategies. This is further challenged by the need to obtain data from suppliers and effectively communicate sustainability efforts to customers.  

Another significant obstacle is the need for a mindset change within organisations. Sustainability can no longer be delegated to a separate department, it must be integrated into the entire workforce. Working in silos is no longer viable, as we increasingly need an incorporated approach to sustainability. Management buy-in is also crucial, along with the investment of resources to promote sustainability transformation. 

These challenges shared among the participants demonstrate the importance of companies to come together and collaborate towards sustainability. By sharing experiences and insights, companies can learn from each other's successes and failures, ultimately driving collective progress toward a more sustainable future. Collaboration fosters innovation, accelerates learning, and ensures that sustainability efforts are both effective and impactful. 

In this sense, the Sustainability Circle is more than just a gathering, it’s a dynamic platform where industry leaders come together to drive sustainable change. Through insightful discussions, practical examples, and networking opportunities, participants gain the knowledge and inspiration needed to understand the complexities of sustainability and act upon them.  

Join the Sustainability Circle and be part of this transformative journey. As a member, you'll gain exclusive access to a range of resources, including events, presentations, roundtables, and networking opportunities. Together, we can accelerate the transition to a more sustainable world. 

Sustainability Circle

Become a member of the Sustainability Circle

Join the Sustainability Circle and be part of this transformative journey. As a member, you'll gain exclusive access to a range of resources, including events, presentations, roundtables, and networking opportunities. Together, we can accelerate the transition to a more sustainable world.