Sustainability is not just an idea, a buzzword, or something that you do—it’s a mindset. Nowhere is that more evident than in Denmark. Copenhagen has developed a climate plan, CPH 2025, with the goal to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city by 2025 following the four pillars of Energy Consumption, Energy Production, Mobility, and City Administration Initiatives.
But I actually didn’t know that when I boarded the plane to Copenhagen.
What I did know was this: the beverage served on the SAS flight was locally sourced, and the socks, eye mask, and toothbrush they gave us were from small Danish companies that used sustainably sourced or recycled materials in their production. The back of the Copenhagen map I picked up at the airport featured an infographic with ten major tenets of “Sustainable Copenhagen.” Our DIS welcome tote bag included a notebook made of bamboo fiber, a mesh fruit and vegetable bag, and organic, fair-trade chocolate, among other items.
I arrived at my flat and learned: Toilets here, even the ones in houses, have two settings in order to save water and energy on flushes. Paper towels are virtually nonexistent, replaced instead with absorbent, reusable sponge cloths. Same with zip-lock bags. My flat has fourteen different bins for sorting recyclable items.
On the first day, one of my flatmates came in with a huge grin and 500 kroner in his hand. In Denmark, bottles and cans include a small deposit upon purchase, which you can recover if you take them to a pantstation—a deposit return station, like a reverse vending machine. You can get between 1 and 3 kroner on glass, plastic, and aluminum bottles and cans. In my roommate’s case, his friend’s dad owns a restaurant and told them that if they took all the recycling, they could keep the deposit. (Sounded like an easy 500, until I saw the picture of his bike laden with four giant garbage bags.)
A side effect of the deposits is an interesting socioeconomic phenomenon. In Copenhagen it is common to see “bottle collectors” around public areas, especially on busy summer evenings. Often low-income or marginalized peoples, the collectors will gather bottles from groups of people drinking in parks or near the canals, or might rummage through the trash or recycling bins. In 2015, the City of Copenhagen took initiative to install “deposit shelves” on recycling bins throughout town to offer more dignity to these bottle collectors and make it easier for them to claim the deposits on bottles and cans that would otherwise just be recycled.
Besides things I’ve noticed around the city, I’ve also been formally studying sustainability throughout my Session 1 course at DIS, Sustainable Business Strategy. DIS’s motto—Scandinavia as your classroom—has been particularly fulfilled throughout this class. I think we spent about 20% of our time indoors and the other 80% on field trips. This structure further impressed the idea that sustainability is all around in Copenhagen—I don’t think there would be quite as many opportunities for field study in a U.S. city, for example.
Throughout the class we spoke to several industry professionals, both employees at large sustainable firms and local small business owners.
Our second class session featured a speaker from Ørsted, ranked the most sustainable company in the world according to the Corporate Knights Global 100 Index. Johan Schoonhoven is a sustainability advisor at Ørsted and spoke most highly of its operations and business model. Both ironically and inspirationally, Ørsted actually began as an oil and natural gas company, known as DONG (Danish Oil & Natural Gas). Following the 2009 UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen, the firm adopted a revolutionary 85/15 strategy, with the goal to convert its operations from 85% fossil fuel to 85% renewable energy.
Johan described the moment of opportunity Ørsted encountered at the time—gas prices had fallen 90% and the firm was in massive debt, so it seized the chance to pivot and enact fundamental change in its practices. After an “ambitious cost target and robust plan,” in 2017, the company completed its transition to 100% renewables and changed its name to Ørsted after the Danish scientist. It is currently the largest offshore wind company in the world, and the cost of wind has actually now fallen below that of conventional fossil fuels by 63%.
SDGs, Sustainia, and the GOE
One of the major themes in our class were the UN Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. These seem to be more popular and mainstream in Denmark than in the U.S.—I remember learning about them in high school Environmental Science, but have barely discussed them in college so far. We heard from a guest lecturer, Lindsey Chaffin, from a consulting firm called Sustainia. Apart from solutions consulting, the company also runs the Global Opportunity Explorer (GOE), the world’s largest collection of sustainably verified solutions and resources. Each opportunity is evaluated with the SDGs in mind in order to showcase concrete implementation, progress, and engagement. Lindsey shed light on the mindset shift required for sustainable transformation: an outlook that converts perceived risk to opportunity. Sustainia and the GOE make it easier for companies to take the leap into sustainability.
One of our projects later in the course actually revolved around presenting a sustainable solution that might be a good fit for the GOE. My group chose The Organic Project, a Massachusetts-based small business that creates organic, sustainable menstrual products. Other companies featured included Green Kayak (free kayaking in exchange for picking up trash), Urban Rigger (shipping containers repurposed for housing), and more.
In our first week we also spoke about companies that inspire. What does it mean to be an inspirational company? Are there more of them in Scandinavia, and why? Often our guest speakers were expats—like Conor Fürstenberg Stott of Fürstenberg Maritime Advisory (Irish), Ana Margarida Torres of circular economy advisory ReFlow (Portuguese), and Lindsey (American). Why Denmark? we asked, and they all gave the same basic answer: It’s a no-brainer. It’s the place to be.
Living and working in a city that puts such emphasis on integrated sustainability, not just dissonant “acts” of sustainability—daily, on a personal level, and on a corporate level—is inspirational. It is very easy to lose heart in the study of the environment and sustainability; it often feels like an uphill battle. In my studies I’ve heard every controversy. Does individual environmental commitment, like recycling and reducing meat consumption, actually help? A common view in environmental studies is no; or yes, but very marginally. Real environmental change will not occur until large companies—sometimes known among sociologists as the polluter-industrial complex—commit to sustainable practices and reduced emissions. But that seems too simple as well.
Anyone who has studied economics will tell you that these concepts are interrelated through the laws of supply and demand. Consumer preferences shift, putting pressure on companies to change. Firms adopting sustainable practices inspire consumers to make better choices, which it turn makes it easier for them to make those choices. That is what I’ve seen occurring in Denmark throughout this course.
It is incredibly inspirational.
A university class is not complete without a diverse, often varying set of perspectives, allowing us to gain informed and well-rounded opinions. In the field of sustainability, everyone’s in agreement about the core points. Go green, use renewable energy, bike everywhere, shop local…. Right?
Well— not quite.
During our field studies to Østerbro and Jægersborggade, we spoke with two local business owners who offered surprising perspectives. First, Inge Vincents, who creates the most beautiful ceramic pieces for her shop on Jægersborggade. They are unique porcelain thinware; as stated on her website, “straddling the fence between crafts and fine art.”
She first spoke about living sustainably on a personal and business level—for example, only firing a full kiln so as to reduce energy usage. More controversial was her standpoint on shopping locally. Jægersborggade features a large banner at the beginning of the street claiming Køb Lokalt—buy local. Inge was against putting it up—a shocking sentiment, at first.
But then, Inge explained that when people come from far away to buy “local” items from another place… that defeats the point of shopping local. How is it local, she asked, if people are flying here from America to buy one of her vases and flying back? Any positive carbon footprint effects are, essentially, reversed through that action. In her eyes, tourists should not be encouraged to shop locally, but locals, of course, should. Support your local businesses—which, of course, is the entire point of that movement when it comes to the sustainability aspect.
We also visited Løs Market during our field study, a 100% organic local food market that is completely free of plastic packaging. We spoke with the owner, Frederic Hamburger, about his business model and the unique challenges and opportunities brought to a grocery store during COVID-19.
His outlook on sustainability was not as positive as expected, as he believes that the world holding up Scandinavia as the paragon of “green” is simply untrue. Danes, he explained, are actually some of the world’s top consumers of pork and dairy products. The popularity of biking here is good for the environment, but Frederic explained that people mostly bike because it’s cheaper (buying a car comes with 150% tax!) and convenient. Sustainability, he said, is just a side effect.
He also offered a critique of a popular service here, Too Good To Go—an app that delivers surplus food from restaurants and bakeries that would otherwise go to waste. Frederic’s market was established with the goal of as little waste as possible, as everything is sold by weight, so customers can simply buy what you need. While Too Good To Go has a good mission, Frederic turned one of our perspectives on its head with the statement: “They are profiting off of waste.” Their business model cannot survive without food waste, so while they might be helping with the issue, they don’t necessarily promote systemic change in the food industry.
During our field study last Thursday, we began in Nordhavn and visited several areas and small businesses, including the world’s first Climate District in Østerbro. This innovative project, created in response to unusually high rainfalls, demonstrates how urban spaces will have to adapt to climate change and become resilient.
We spent the most time in Tåsinge Square—once a bunker, but now a beautiful garden and community space that also serves to store rainwater. Our professor’s fiancée actually advised on this project and spoke to us in detail about its establishment. I’d highly recommend reading more about the climate district here; it’s interesting and most relevant to our world today.
We also visited Gro Spiseri, a restaurant that serves seasonal fare from its very own rooftop farm. We ate delicious pizza at Stefano’s and made a trip to Daddy’s Bakes, a small local bakery that creates the most adorable (and sustainable!) boxes with a treat for everyone in the family. We ended the day relaxing at Faelledparken and debriefing about what we’d learned.
So why is this post titled Sustainability (in)Action?
It’s inaction because sustainability, here, is not an act. It’s a lifestyle!
(And of course, it’s a pun on “in action”—because I can’t resist a pun.)
Check out ByBi for delicious local honey created from hives hosted all over the city!
Coffee Collective has incredible and sustainably sourced coffee from all over the world. I particularly love their espresso.
Haps Nordic, on Jægersborggade, sells beautiful and reusable, sustainably made kitchenware.
Flying Tiger is a fun Copenhagen-based variety goods store that has a surprisingly sustainable supply chain. You can read more about their Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives here.