Published 2020-05-07This post is also available in Swedish
Aiming to give Swedish companies insight into EU policy
Resource wastage provokes her. Positions in which she can make a real difference engage her. And she is unfazed about pushing companies towards more ambitious sustainability efforts. Meet Maria Wetterstrand, who is getting a new base in Brussels this summer to improve Swedish businesses’ access to information about the EU’s environmental and climate policy.
Wetterstrand is working from home in an isolated, locked-down Helsinki. She lacks social contact with other adults. As CEO of Miltton Purpose, a consulting firm that assists companies in their work on sustainability issues, she sees interaction with other people and scope for genuinely contributing to social change as the main rewards of her job.
‘I always want to learn something new, understand and get into details. Otherwise, I tend to get understimulated. For a long time, I worked alone as a freelancer, which was a lovely change after leaving politics. But I did miss the social contact. Now that I’m quarantined at home, history’s repeating itself,’ Wetterstrand says with a wry laugh.
After boosting the Swedish Green Party’s membership and voter support and topping the polls in terms of public confidence, she left politics in 2011. In so doing, she also moved away from Sweden and settled down in Helsinki with her then husband Ville Niinistö and her two children. A few years’ self-employment as a commentator and writer on green issues followed. Then she took the job at Miltton Purpose.
By supporting Swedish business in environmental matters and social responsibility, Wetterstrand sees great potential for helping to bring about positive social development.
‘The challenge for Swedish companies is that they compare themselves with competitors too much, instead of focusing on what needs doing. That’s a big problem when they choose to measure certain parameters where they’re doing better than the global average. Then they see the results as showing that they’re good enough, instead of setting goals based on what global expertise is available on, for instance, how much emissions need to decrease.’
Brussels, here she comes
Wetterstrand does not hesitate to state her opinion to the companies seeking help from her, whether it is about emission statistics, the company’s impact on hard-pressed natural resources or biodiversity depletion. She also comments on the company’s work on social sustainability — if people are used as cheap labour. Her hope is to push her clients in the right direction with her knowledge and experience.
‘Whatever I think, ultimately it’s up to them to make the decision. Here, I benefit from my political background, as well as my biology training and knowing how companies think. That’s also a reason why they choose to work with me: they have operations with close community ties and influenced by politics, and they want to stay one step ahead.’
In June, Wetterstrand becomes CEO of Miltton Europe, headquartered in Brussels. Since her ex-husband and the children’s father is now a member of the European Parliament (MEP) and the children were due to change schools anyway, they made a joint decision to settle in the same city. Once the decision was made, the job turned up.
‘I believe the initiatives from the EU will have a major impact on Swedish business. And now, with the Green Deal, it’s particularly exciting. My aim is to be in Brussels and follow policy decisions closely, while helping companies understand what’s going on and what various decisions mean for them in particular.’
Resource wastage prompted environmental commitment
Wetterstrand looks forward to a more ambitious environmental and climate policy at EU level. Swedish business is in the forefront and benefits from tougher demands, she thinks. She does not regard today’s regulations as suited to new technology and creation of a circular economy. Here, she hopes for new requirements on how products are designed for reuse, recycling and greater use of secondary materials.
This is also the question that aroused Wetterstrand’s environmental fervour from the start. She recounts how, as a teenager, she was immensely provoked by seeing the enormous wastage of resources, but also global inequality in access to resources.
‘In rich countries, we’re exploiting natural resources and using most of Earth’s natural resources. There are huge challenges here and a vast amount to do, while I think a lot is going in the right direction. This issue still engages me, and I’ve felt, and still feel, that I can do a lot of good by working politically and with big companies. That’s where I can make things happen.’
Bioeconomy — a potential conflict
Nowadays, Wetterstrand is also a board member of Mistra Digital Forest, which aims to contribute to a circular bioeconomy by using the potential of digitisation. Here, too, she sees that she can contribute her long experience in the environment and politics, the community perspective and benefits to society. This is particularly the case in the tug-of-war that she sees going on about the bioeconomy — whether forest resources should replace fossil fuels.
‘Some think that’s the solution to the climate issue; others take a completely different view. There’s a big potential conflict here, which I believe Mistra Digital Forest can stop through its research. The strength is the broad focus of the programme and the importance of research in a broader global perspective.’
Back at her home office in Helsinki, there’s the enforced seclusion, the coronavirus pandemic and, in particular, its impact on long-term climate and environmental work. Wetterstrand is at once anxious and hopeful. She worries that the focus is shifting away from sustainability issues, sidelining the long view. But she is hopeful that there is now every opportunity to synchronise support packages with sustainability goals and turn the recovery into a transition.
‘We’re now seeing a decline in the prices of emission rights and fossil fuels, and it’s hard to persuade companies to make long-term investments in climate-smart technology when policy instruments are shifting towards fossil fuels. We mustn’t forget the long-term goals — we’ve got to seize the opportunity to actually change when we have the chance.’
Name: Maria Wetterstrand.
Background: MSc in Biology, Riksdag member and spokesperson for the Green Party, freelance green public commentator, currently CEO of both Miltton Purpose (outgoing) and Miltton Europe.
Leisure interests: I’m mostly with the kids. I’ve been sharing custody of a dog. Now, during the pandemic, I’ve started working out too.
In ten years’ time: Maybe I’ll be back in Sweden again.
Dreaming about: That they’ll find a vaccine against coronavirus, and that someday I’ll get to go to Sheffield and watch the World Snooker Championship again.