Think at London Business School
The global economy needs a radical rewiring, says Standard Chartered’s Head of Sustainable Finance. No more excuses.
By Emma Broomfield
Grape ESG is one very exciting company. Bringing together academic excellence and industry expertise, it guides organisations towards more sustainable practices, while working with boards to create long-term value for them and their shareholders.
The founders, Ione Anderson and Ricardo Assumpção, met during their time at London Business School. They were both taking the Sustainability, Leadership and Corporate Responsibility online programme and both keen to improve awareness of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues in their native Brazil: it was almost inevitable that they would start collaborating.
We asked Ione and Ricardo about the highs and lows of launching their sustainability consultancy and what impact LBS has had for them.
With a background in science and journalism, Ione had spent years working as an international civil servant, with a focus on sustainable development and protecting biodiversity from climate change. Over time, she had also become increasingly interested in the role of the private sector in driving sustainability projects. “There’s so much siloed working,” she explains. “I’d worked with UN agencies and other international organisations, but we never had much interaction with the corporate world. I was very curious about that side of things.”
During her research, Ione came across a paper by Ioannis Ioannou, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at LBS. She reached out to him in 2017 and they began discussing what different companies were doing to combat climate change. “It was really, really interesting to hear what all these different organisations were doing – things that we just don’t have the resources for in the public sector. So, two years later, when Ioannis let me know he would be creating a programme on sustainability leadership, I enrolled right away.”
On the other hand, Ricardo, a serial entrepreneur, was already embedded in the private sector when he applied to LBS. After founding his first company, a strategy consulting firm, in 2006, he worked across various areas of strategy, communications and government relations for more than a decade. He was always committed to choosing sustainable projects, but says he wanted to improve his leadership skills. “I was always very focused on what the legacy of our work was going to be, what kind of positive impact we could leave behind. But I sometimes lacked confidence in my own sustainability leadership abilities, so I was looking for something that would help me fill those gaps.”
In the end, it was a recommendation from a friend who had previously studied under Dr Ioannou that convinced Ricardo to choose LBS. “I had mentioned to this friend that I was looking at a few different places and he asked who was teaching the LBS programme. When I told him it was Ioannis he told me I had to apply; they’d actually been in Silicon Valley together as part of the LBS Sloan programme. He assured me the programme would offer the mix of sustainability and innovation I was looking for.”
What initially drew them to each other? “Well, we were two of probably only four Brazilians on the course,” Ione laughs. The pair began to exchange papers they were reading and continued discussions after class. Before long, they began writing a policy brief together (soon to be published), which included their perspectives on key sustainability issues, leaning on their respective backgrounds in science and business.
Ricardo was especially interested in Ione’s scientific background: “I had gained a lot of business knowledge and management skills over the course of my entrepreneurial career, but I’d never had a solid grasp on the science. Finding somebody who could bring that perspective to the table was key for me.”
For Ione, it was Ricardo’s experience in business and management that made her feel they could succeed: “I really do believe, especially in our post-pandemic world, that the strongest opportunities for sustainable development will come from innovation. The public sector has been hit so hard by COVID-19, it simply won’t be able to move anywhere near fast enough.”
Ricardo had already been using lessons from the programme to inform conversations with his existing clients. Based on learnings from the programme, he started to develop a methodology to show them how it was possible to create value and drive innovation by integrating sustainability into their strategies.
When he and Ione decided to start their own consultancy firm, things moved fast. Grape ESG was founded in October 2020. Reflecting on their chance meeting, Ione says, “LBS is the kind of place where partnerships like ours are made possible. I feel like this is partly because the School encourages collaboration, but also because the people you meet here are genuinely invested in their studies and careers. Sustainability is something we’ve both always been passionate about – but it was only when we followed our passions to LBS that we were able to take the next step, forming our partnership and founding Grape ESG.”
“We don’t have to solve these problems one at a time. We can use developments in newer fields to solve our old problems.”
Despite being up and running for less than a year, Grape ESG has been featured in national and international news outlets – including the Financial Times. But despite the buzz, they’re extremely selective about which clients they choose to work with. As CEO, Ricardo is leading Grape ESG towards an ambitious goal: to be the most respected sustainability consulting company in Brazil. That means sticking firmly to their convictions.
He explains, “We’re very upfront with potential partners. We need to know that they’re in it for the long haul, that sustainability will be part of their DNA. If they tell me they’re looking for quick results, that’s fine, but I let them know we won’t be able to work together.”
What have been some of their biggest challenges? “In Brazil, ESG isn’t yet a mainstream idea like it is in the US or the UK,” Ione says. “There are other, equally pressing, socioeconomic issues, such as inequality, unemployment and a lack of infrastructure and education that impact our stakeholders.”
Looking for a way to craft a relevant message and talk directly to Brazilians, they turned their attentions to a simple example with a global reach: the plight of the Amazon rainforest. Rather than rehashing messages of impending doom, Grape ESG partnered with LBS to produce ‘Amazonia 4.0: The Reset Begins’. The short film, which was launched on Earth Day 2021, tells a more hopeful story of a future in which innovative bioindustries could not only protect native communities and ecosystems but drive economic opportunity across the region.
It’s this belief in marrying remedies to sustainability issues with potential opportunities for economic growth that Grape ESG believes will be key to driving change across South America. “I do believe it is important that we all understand the impact of our personal choices on the world around us,” Ione says. “But there are so many other pressures here. We have to be communicating a positive message to people. We need them to be inspired, to understand how addressing these big sustainability issues could improve their lives too.”
Ricardo agrees, “We can’t start talking to people about using water to create renewable energy until we address the fact that 30 million people here have no access to portable water.” Building awareness of ESG issues while such stark structural inequalities still abound is a daunting challenge, but Ricardo also believes this is where the most exciting opportunities lie. “We don’t have to solve these problems one at a time. What’s great is that we can use developments in newer fields, like renewable energy, to solve our old problems.”
This dual approach is useful for clients, too. “Especially now that the pandemic has reminded us how fragile life is and has brought sustainability issues front of mind for many people, we’re reminding our clients that a more sustainable approach isn’t just the right thing to do, but a positive differentiator for their business.”
That belief is also the driving force behind their 100% sustainable coffee shops. Café da Margem (“riverbank café”) offers the people of São Paulo a best-practice example of a zero-waste circular economy in action – and great coffee to boot. Grape ESG plans to scale up the coffee shops across Brazil and, eventually, globally.
At COP26 in Glasgow, where sustainability and climate change promise to snatch news headlines for two weeks, Grape ESG will also be present: they have led the efforts that resulted in a partnership between a Brazilian company and the UN Climate Change to explore issues such as water security and waste, and water management.
Not only has Grape ESG already attracted big-name clients such as Braskem, Sabesp, Ambipar and Nestlé; their creative and engaging approach to raising awareness has earned them three international best short documentary and best environmental film awards and a Climate Change Communication Award nomination for Amazonia 4.0. “We’re really excited about that,” says Ricardo. “We always wanted to get the communication aspect right, so it’s great to be recognised for something we’re so passionate about.”
It’s their infectious passion and positivity that Ione believes has carried them through the last year. “Starting a new organisation is challenging, of course. But passion and professionalism are contagious. We understand that the transition to this way of operating is daunting for our clients – they’re having to balance everything against their bottom line.” How do they keep nervous clients on track? “We can give them all the evidence, but so much of what we do is just reassuring them that there is potential for growth. That’s why our motto is ‘Inspiring sustainable thinking’.”
Their studies at LBS might be over, but there’s little chance of Ricardo and Ione losing touch with Dr Ioannou: he now sits on the board of Grape ESG. “We’ve been so lucky to have some really amazing appointments,” Ione says, “but Ioannis joining us felt particularly special. It’s like coming full circle.
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